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Fire departments around York County have scrambled for answers to the persistent troubles they're having recruiting and retaining volunteers to their stations.

The Dover Township Fire Department turned to an unusual solution, and one that's worked well for them: They let volunteers make a home at the fire station.

The fire company has a live-in program, in which up to 14 volunteers reside full time in dorms in the station, rent-free, according to Deputy Chief Brian Widmayer.

The firefighters, mostly single 20-somethings, stay there there for about two or three years on average.

“This is where they hang out, this is where they eat, this is where they do their laundry,” he said.

The program has 11 live-ins right now, working staggered shifts at their paid jobs — they have to have a job or be in school to become a live-in — so at least four people are in the firehouse at any given time.

“This station stays staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” he said. Yes, even holidays — Widmayer said they also stagger their Thanksgiving meals with family, for example, so people are always there.

They're currently looking for more resident firefighters. Ideally, all 14 positions would be filled, as they have been before, the deputy chief said.

The station has offered the live-in program for almost three decades, but officials really only emphasized it in the past eight or nine years as Dover, like many other departments, began to feel the pain from a lack of volunteers. Across the state, the number of active volunteer firefighters is down from about 300,000 at its peak in 1976 to 50,000 to 70,000 today, authorities estimate.

Over the years they've expanded both the number of live-in positions possible and the space allotted to them, adding a women's living area along the way, he said.

Widmayer said this has worked for his fire department because the company has successfully filled a niche: The program attracts people who are serious about firefighting, who want it to be their vocation rather than merely a thing they help out with sometimes.

“This is a stepping stone to the next stage in their lives,” he said. Many do move on to career firefighting positions, while others often become law enforcement officers or other first responders.

So Dover Township attracts people from all over the York area — and some from outside of it, such as a volunteer from the Philadelphia area and another from Punxatawny — as living in the fire station gives them the chance to fight far more fires than they could volunteering in most other places.

Widmayer said he doesn’t think this is a silver bullet for volunteer firefighting in general, because they don’t bring in anyone who wasn’t already fighting fires. In fact, they mostly pull people from other departments in the area, individuals who have aspirations to make the jump to career — full-time, paid — firefighting.

“We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul” in that regard, he said. “It’s a good thing for us, but a bad thing for them.”

Right now, the firefighters each live in their own little cubicle, with a bed, a night stand and the like, with plywood walls that, according to code, can't extend up to the ceiling.

"It’s not like it’s the Taj Mahal," said the 28-year-old deputy chief, who lives there himself.

And that is a big reason they're planning on expanding to another building down the road. The department recently worked on flipping a house, a two-floor dwelling on Greenfield Drive, complete with four bedrooms and one and a half bathrooms; they're using the money they get from that to help pay for the expansion, which will include new bays for equipment and more living space for the volunteers.

The company still does have some non-live-in volunteers; there are about 20 to 25 active members in total, so about half don't live at the station, he said. As is the case with so many departments around the area — and state, and country — that number has dropped in recent years. Given the current issue so many stations have with recruiting and keeping volunteer firefighters, the live-in program has been a very welcome source of security.

“If our live-in program failed, we’d be in serious trouble,” Widmayer said.

— Reach Sean Cotter at scotter@yorkdispatch.com.

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