There could be a night when a fire breaks out in Elsmere and the town's firefighters pay it no mind. But they would not be neglecting their duty.
The Elsmere Fire Company has teamed with fire departments in nearby Cranston Heights and Belvedere to rotate overnight shifts. They take turns stamping out fires in all three areas.
The arrangement, which started in May, is designed to help volunteer fire departments cope with fewer firefighters. And in this instance, it also serves as an incentive for volunteers to join one of the departments because there is more action and the hours are fixed.
A steady decline in volunteer firefighters is a national trend that started 20 years ago, with ranks thinning from 880,000 to 790,000 nationwide, or about 10 percent, according to the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
"I don't think it's as strong of a community commitment as it was when I first joined," said Andy Hall, chief of the Townsend Fire Company and a volunteer for almost 24 years. "We want to take you away from your family and work you hard and basically not give you any money for it."
Firefighter Joe Vannucci of the Good Will Fire Company of New Castle has volunteered for 30 years and is ready for a break, but said he won't be taking one anytime soon.
"I do it because there's no one else doing it," he said. "After this many years, you should be slacking off, but you need to be picking up the pace. We can't seem to draw the volunteers like we used to."
Odd hours, no pay
In Delaware, 60 volunteer fire departments rely on members to drop whatever they are doing and respond mostly by pager to emergencies. Wilmington firefighters are paid and work regular shifts.
Most of the volunteers work elsewhere. But when the alarm rings, everyone available - from the chief on down - climbs aboard the firetrucks and sometimes put their lives on the line for the community. In addition to a small state pension, they get a uniform, equipment and training, the use of recreational facilities at the firehouse, a $400 state tax credit and free annual picnics and banquets, said Hall, who works in the maintenance department at an automobile assembly plant.
But for fighting those fires, they get no pay.
The service saved taxpayers more than $140 million last year, according to state Auditor Tom Wagner, whose office compiles an annual financial report on the volunteer fire departments.
The fire departments are supported by state grants, money from a fraction of fire insurance taxes assessed each year, fund-raisers and contributions, said Jim Cubbage, executive secretary of the Delaware Volunteer Firemen's Association.
They serve for free because it's how fire departments started, Cubbage said. "I think it's neighbor taking care of neighbor," he said. "The same mission is still there, to be able to help their neighbors in time of emergencies."
Changes in society are making that tradition more difficult, and they account for some of the drop in the number of volunteer firefighters.
"I think the biggest single thing is our lives have become so busy. We're go, go, go, go, go, go, go," said Michael Kernan, director of the Delaware State Fire School in Dover. "Everybody's working multiple jobs. They're juggling children and everything else."
Townsend firefighter Bob Bartley can attest to that. He has been with Townsend one year, and served six years at the Christiana Fire Company, from 1976 to 1982.
"I had a few years in between the fire companies because of kids, because of family life," Bartley said. "Family comes first. That's just what I had to do."
Emergency calls on rise
As the number of volunteers has dropped, the number of ambulance and fire calls has increased, which makes efforts to attract more volunteers even more critical, firefighters said. Firefighters also are trained as emergency medical technicians.