Pennsylvania's Volunteer Fire Companies Face Money, Staffing Shortages

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) -- Pennsylvania's volunteer fire departments are in a state of emergency, according to legislators and the leaders of various companies.

Chronic volunteer shortages, higher equipment costs and unproductive fundraisers have forced fire companies to do more with less, department chiefs said. Two state legislative reports -- one issued last week and another issued last November -- also suggest it's time for volunteer fire departments to consolidate, The Tribune-Democrat of Johnstown reported Sunday.

Departments' most critical need is finding volunteers. The number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania has dropped from 300,000 in 1976 to 72,000 today, according to a recently released state report.

Volunteer shortages are most evident when there's a daytime fire, when most firefighters are working at their paying jobs in another town, department chiefs said.

That was not the case when industry boomed in western Pennsylvania, said Richard McPherson, the chief of the West Taylor Volunteer Fire Company in Somerset County.

``Back in the heyday, when everybody worked three shifts, there was always somebody around,'' McPherson said.

Many volunteer companies serve communities of 10,000 or fewer people, so they lack large populations from which to draw their volunteers. Also, young people are less interested in firefighting nowadays, said Steve Unger, the secretary of the Cambria County Firemen's Association.

Volunteer ranks have taken a hit because the government recommends more training than before, some department leaders said. It is recommended that entry-level firefighters have 88 hours of training.

The training is not mandatory, but failing to follow government standards leaves departments open to lawsuits, said Dan Buck Sr., a Somerset firefighter and a training instructor.

Continuing education keeps firefighters abreast of the latest technologies and techniques, but it is also expensive. It costs about $7,400 on average to train and equip a firefighter, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.

Vehicles are especially budget-draining. A new truck could cost as much as a high-priced home in some communities.

``We purchased a new engine in 1983, and it cost $123,000. That same vehicle today would cost $300,000,'' said Chet Borosky, the head of Southmont's fire company in Cambria County.

Companies aim to secure state and federal grants that were created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Many departments also receive financial help from the municipalities they protect.

But volunteer fire departments have come to rely on donations from residents and companies. The companies try to rally support with dinners, raffles, sandwich sales and other events.

The dozen volunteers in Jerome's company spend about 80 percent of their time raising funds, said Fire Chief Nick Panasci.

But some departments have canceled events because community interest has waned. Hooversville's company ended a weekly bingo night it had hosted since the early 1970s because of a lack on interest.

State fire Commissioner Ed Mann said that could be a sign that smaller companies should consolidate.

``In some communities, you could go play bingo every night of the week at a different fire station,'' Mann said. ``We're competing with each other.''

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