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Folks here in York County have a critical decision to make.

We can donate more money and give more time to our local volunteer fire companies.

Or, we can pay more taxes to support paid firefighters and emergency responders.

Or, we can call 911 during a crisis and suddenly realize that desperately needed help won't arrive anytime soon, if at all.

Under the latter, worst-case scenario, we could easily see our houses and businesses burn to the ground, or see our loved ones die unnecessarily.

Hopefully, it won't come to that.

Unfortunately, the lack of volunteer firefighters is reaching a tipping point.

According to a report in Wednesday's York Dispatch, authorities estimate that 50,000 to 70,000 volunteer firefighters are active in Pennsylvania. That's down from a high of 300,000 in 1976. Even using the higher 70,000 number, that's a drop of more than 75 percent. That 's a deadly serious concern.

Right now, too much of the burden is falling on too few people.

According to local officials, it's becoming a desperate situation.

"Volunteer fire service is dying quickly," Shrewsbury Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Tony Myers said.

"We're in dire straits," Dover Township Volunteer Fire Department Deputy Chief Brian Widmayer said.

The reasons for the decrease in volunteers vary.

The time requirement is significant — 168 hours of training, plus countless hours spent fundraising.

Extremely busy lives, with many households featuring two working parents, also cuts into time available for other activities.

A loss of a sense of community, with people working in one town and living in another, is also cited.

No matter the reasons, the problem is critical.

How can it be fixed?

Well, we can start by strongly supporting the fundraising efforts of our local volunteer fire companies.

Second, we can consider joining those organizations and volunteering our time to become firefighters.

Yes, money and time are limited in these difficult economic times, but the alternatives are not enticing — higher taxes to support more paid firefighters, or even worse, tragic outcomes when emergency responders don't respond quickly, or at all.

It's our decision, and time is of the essence.

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