Pennsylvania Volunteer Fire Companies Turning to Paid Employees for Help

INDIANA, Pa. (AP) --Paul Koons is the only paid firefighter in Indiana County.

But Koons is one of a growing number of paid employees at otherwise volunteer fire departments across the nation, who do everything from drive trucks to handle burgeoning administrative duties.

''It's due to the economy. You don't have the luxury of as many volunteers,'' said Koons, 39. He has been an Indiana Fire Association volunteer since 1991, but was named the department's $30,000-a-year administrator in January. Before coming to Indiana, Koons was a volunteer firefighter in Loretto, where he grew up.

''One of my earliest memories ... is when that fire whistle used to blow and seeing Joe Blow running out of the Smithmyers Superette and other guys coming down the street to the fire station,'' Koons said. ''You don't have that anymore.''

Fire companies are hurting for members because more families have two working parents and fewer people work near their homes, leaving less time for volunteer work, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.

Meanwhile, fire departments have gotten busier.

Even departments that don't handle emergency medical services must train firefighters to deal with hazardous materials and counterterrorism _ two duties unheard of decades ago. Record keeping is also at a premium. If fire companies can't document training, for example, residents can see their fire insurance premiums increase.

''The mindset has to be that we are running a business. Whether it's all-volunteer or not, it's still a business,'' said Rick Flinn, fire chief in Hampden Township, Cumberland County. The township hired a full-time employee nearly four years ago to help Flinn with paperwork and other duties.

Pennsylvania has about 2,500 fire companies, the most in the nation, and all but 23 are volunteer, said State Fire Commissioner Ed Mann. The paid companies are in larger cities like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Altoona and Allentown. But more than 70 volunteer companies have at least one paid employee, Mann said.

And that number is growing.

''The tradition that the fire service has carried on for hundreds of years is that we're all volunteer and we can do it ourselves,'' said Heather Schafer, executive director of the National Volunteer Fire Council in Washington, D.C. ''But today's challenges have made them look to alternate methods of recruiting people and how to staff our departments.''

More than 19,000 fire companies out of 26,000 nationwide are all-volunteer. Fewer than 1,900 are fully paid and the rest are hybrids, Schafer said.

This year, Congress approved $65 million to help fire departments retain and hire new staff, said Craig Sharman, the council's director of government relations. Volunteer and paid departments can apply for the grants, similar to federal funds used to hire police during the Clinton administration, starting May 1.

Mann, also an assistant fire chief in Mifflin County, said some volunteer companies simply hire drivers for weekday calls when the bulk of their members are working.

''In a lot of cases fire chiefs find themselves going to second and third alarms,'' Mann said. ''It's not unusual to see 10 or 12 vehicles called to a scene and just two being used because the point (of calling in the extra companies) was just to get enough firefighters there.'' Koons is certified to drive Indiana's fire trucks. He began working as a part-time maintenance employee for the fire company in 1997.

''It's ranged from working on the trucks to putting the toilet paper on the roll ... to going to Mike's Old Folks Home to pull a fire drill because the Department of Labor and Industry requires it,'' Koons said.

These days Koons is doing more paperwork, from maintaining records to shopping for equipment. He was officially named the department's full-time administrator three months ago, though he still answers fire calls _ like any other volunteer _ during his off hours.

Koons said some longtime volunteers question using a paid employee.

''They'll say, 'But when my dad was here, it wasn't an issue.' Well, back when your dad was here everybody worked within three blocks of the firehouse, too,'' Koons said.

Flinn, the Hampden Township fire chief, said: ''You have to be as good at administering the operation as you are fighting fires. This isn't something that's a negative thing, unless you want to twist it that way.''