In 1976, Pennsylvania boasted an estimated 300,000 volunteer firefighters.
By 1995, the number of volunteers had dropped to 70,000, a 19-year decline of 230,000, according to one study.
Nationwide, volunteers comprise between 85 and 90 percent of firefighter ranks. But Ed Mann, state fire commissioner, said the number of Pennsylvania volunteers is typically closer to 95 percent, making this decline in volunteers even more troubling.
To reverse this trend, Pennsylvania lawmakers approved an amendment to the state school code that allows high schools to offer firefighter and emergency medical services training.
"It's another recruiting tool," said Mann, an assistant chief at a small volunteer station. "Everyone needs to understand this is not a mandate on school districts."
Act 48, passed as part of the education budget in December and revised and signed into law last month, allows high schools to offer students, age 16 and older, Firefighter 1 training from the National Board of Professional Qualifications, or emergency medical technician training as mandated by the state Department of Health.
And, contrary to popular belief, while the attacks of Sept. 11 fueled patriotism across the country, it did not result in more volunteers, said state Rep. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg.
"We've lost 50 percent of our volunteers in the last 10 or 15 years," said Solobay, also an assistant fire chief of the Canonsburg fire department.
A September 2002 report by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency found that while potential recruits may be put off by the threat of communicable diseases and terrorism, busier lifestyles also deter willing volunteers. That, coupled with the evolution of corporations replacing locally owned businesses, has resulted in residents who aren't as connected to their communities, the study states, a view that's shared by Solobay.
McDonald fire Chief Tom Krenn runs a junior program with nine volunteers ages 16 to 18. To participate, junior volunteers must complete an 88-hour course offered several times throughout the year by Washington County Fire Academy. But Krenn said many of the department's junior volunteers are recruited through a junior firefighters club at Fort Cherry High School. Even with the club, the number of volunteers has been shrinking, Krenn said.
"Right now, we have 25 active members that actually answer calls," he said.
Fort Cherry principal Fred McGivern oversees the junior firefighter club at Fort Cherry and said the club was formed for the very reason the new legislation seeks to address.
McGivern, a Mt. Pleasant Township volunteer firefighter, said increasing regulations and fund-raising demands also deter potential volunteers.
"It almost scares people away from answering calls, the amount of training time that has to be put forth, the amount of time you need to raise funds," McGivern said.
At least two Pennsylvania high schools, Ambridge and Penn Cambria, already offer firefighter training as part of their curriculum, said Mann, who has visited both sites.
Child labor laws restrict volunteer firefighters younger than 14, but many departments have higher age requirements, Mann said.
Mann said the fire commission is working with the state Department of Education to work through the logistics of making the training available at more high schools across the state.
"In a lot of cases, fire and emergency services may very well go to the school district and say here's a provision that allows you to do this," Mann said.