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For decades, if you wanted to know the true heart of a small community, you went to one place — the local fire company.

It’s where folks went to trade gossip, play cards and hold socials.

Oh yes, it’s also where local volunteers went to learn the trade of fighting fires, so when the time came, they’d be ready to do their duty for their community.

The local fire company was simply indispensable.

That’s why many communities are strongly opposed to losing their local fire companies. The town folk see the closing of fire companies as a symbolic shutdown of the soul of the community.

Unfortunately, however, times have changed.

Getting people to commit their time and toil as volunteer firefighters is getting harder and harder. In fact, most small fire companies are now facing a shortage of volunteers that has reached a crisis level.

As a result, many of the smaller volunteer fire companies have been forced to consolidate in order to survive.

It’s not something that the local companies enjoyed doing, but they did it because they had no other choice.

Local merger: That’s the scenario in southern York County. The Red Lion, Windsor and Felton borough fire companies are in merger talks to form a new regional company.

Leo Independent Fire Engine Co. No. 1 in Red Lion, Laurel Fire Co. No. 1 in Windsor and Union Volunteer Fire Co. in Felton would comprise the regional company.

The three departments have already drafted bylaws and are developing policies for the would-be regional company. Other details about the merger are a little sketchy right now.

One thing is obvious, however. The merger is necessary in order to continue to offer a minimum level of volunteer firefighting services.

The fault for this crisis lies with us. Local folks are no longer willing to volunteer to help their local fire companies. We’ve lost our volunteer spirit.

The numbers are proof of that.

Scary numbers: Pennsylvania's volunteer firefighter ranks have decreased from about 300,000 volunteers in the 1970s to about 38,000 in 2018, according to a state legislative report released last year.

Waning recruitment and retention of volunteers, as well as limitations on how fire companies are allowed to use relief funds, are two of several contributing factors cited in the report.

More than 90% of Pennsylvania's 2,462 fire companies are volunteer companies, according to the report.

Merging companies is one sensible solution to combating the crisis in volunteer staffing numbers.

However, that may only be a stopgap measure.

Pay with time or pay with taxes: If the volunteer firefighting numbers continue to plummet at their current rate, even the merged, regional volunteer companies may soon have trouble filling their staffing needs.

When that time comes, there will only be one solution. The disbanding of volunteer companies in favor of paid firefighters.

Local residents will then face a very unpleasant experience when they open up their tax bills. Paid firefighters are not cheap. They do a very dangerous job and they do it very well. They deserve to be fairly compensated.

There is one solution, of course. More of us can volunteer to help our local fire companies.

Yes, it will take time and commitment, and everyone has busy lives these days. Still, our parents and grandparents found a way to do it. They made it a priority in their lives.

Are we willing to make that same commitment today?

The declining number of volunteers would say the answer is “no.”

If that trend continues, each of us will have to open up our check books, because of a rather large bill will soon come due.

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