WESTMORELAND COUNTY, Pa. --
Finding new recruits for local volunteer fire departments is becoming a big problem, WTAE Channel 4's Jennifer Miele reported Tuesday.
Fire chiefs in Westmoreland County say offering tax breaks and education credits to volunteer firefighters would bolster the numbers in their departments.
Without enough volunteers, neighborhoods may be forced to pay firefighters to keep residents safe.
"I think it's going to come to the point where you're going to see some paid staff in township companies, backed up by the volunteers," North Hempfield Fire Chief Ralph Stoup said. "I would love to see it stay volunteer, but unless we get the people, I don't see that happening. The firemen are going to become a dying breed."
The state says the number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania have fallen from 300,000 in the 1970s to just 70,000 today.
Ron Supancic was the Claridge volunteer fire chief for 29 years, and he has watched the decline happen.
"The class of the firemen -- it's the most dangerous job there is," Supancic said. "You never know when you go into a building what's going to happen. You never know if you're going to come out hurt or if you're going to be OK."
Also, the commitment of time that's necessary is tremendous.
Volunteers need more than 150 hours of training, and their calls can last an entire day or night -- not to mention the hours spent at bingos or fish fries, raising money for new equipment.
"People that join the fire department don't have to be firemen," Supancic said. "They can be executive members -- general members, as we call them -- to help with the fundraising. They can help with the books. Every fire department is looking for help like that."
North Hempfield is showing off its equipment, hoping to interest people in volunteering.
Also, local supervisors are going to hang a plaque with the names of volunteers at the municipal building, hoping the praise will encourage them to keep fighting.
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