Towns Gang up for Volunteer Fire Companies

"Used to be," longtime firefighters say, that fire companies had a steady supply of volunteers, plenty of willing hands on fire calls, and could get by on one or two fund-raising events a year.

The volunteer fire service is just not that way anymore. The number of volunteers continues to dwindle, affecting the ability of fire companies to meet their commitment to public safety.

The time for talk about what "used to be" is over, say a group of emergency service workers and municipal officials in Franklin County, who are orchestrating formation of a new group that will be the one voice the volunteer fire service says it needs.

"Retaining and recruiting volunteers is the biggest problem. It should be our priority," said Sam Cressler, a supervisor in Southampton Township. "We have to change the way we've been doing things."

The county Association of Township Officials plans to form the Franklin County Emergency Services Alliance to help volunteers by developing recruitment, retention, training and leadership programs. A charter and bylaws are expected to be ready for municipal vote this summer.

The county has 16 fire companies, of which one is fully paid.

Individually, the fire companies can't do much about the volunteer problem, according to Ken North, the

Ted Snively, a paid EMT

Career center program may hold key to training future

About half of the more than 300 students who have graduated from Franklin County Career and Technology Center's protective services program are working in emergency services, according to the program director.

A handful are in the military as military police. Many volunteer with local fire and ambulance companies.

John Fahnestock, program director, said the 23 to 25 slots in the program are filled every year, with a waiting list.

"It's been a successful program," he said. "And it's been a boost to the county emergency services."

The number of volunteers has been dwindling across the United States since the 1980s. Volunteers have been looking at ways to increase their numbers.

Emergency personnel and municipal leaders have formed the county Emergency Services Alliance, to help develop training, recruiting and retention programs for volunteer fire companies.

The center's program may help, according to Fahnestock.

The tech center added the protective services program to its curriculum eight years ago. It is comprised of training for firefighting, emergency medical technician work and law enforcement.

After they start the three-year course, an average of four students join a local fire company, Fahnestock said. About 25% are already junior members.

In this year's graduating class, two have already decided on emergency services careers. Jamie Izer, Greencastle, and Adam Baumgardner, Mont Alto, will attend paramedic schools. Both are emergency medical technicians.

"They get the training here," Fahnestock said. "When they graduate, they're ready to become senior members or go to work."

Training, especially for new volunteers, is one of the areas affecting today's fire county's training officer and a volunteer with the Franklin Fire Company. Some have succeeded, some haven't, he said.

"We need one voice -- countywide," Waynesboro Borough Manager Lloyd Hamberger said. "We must protect all our volunteers."

Franklin's plan is a first among the state's 67 counties in addressing the dwindling numbers of active volunteers, said Dean Fernsler, director of the state's Governor's Center for Local Government Services.

Across the state, there are 85 efforts under way to preserve the volunteer fire service, primarily through mergers and consolidations, according to Fernsler. There have been nine mergers and 10 consolidations, resulting in 45 companies becoming 19.

One regional effort in Lancaster County, he said, pulled together seven fire and ambulance services and three local governments.

Also, there are a number of fire service committees across the state evaluating the volunteer service. The committees will make recommendations to local governments on how the companies can remain volunteer.

The state has 2,400 volunteer fire companies and a rich tradition -- in 1735 Ben Franklin and several others formed the Union Volunteer Fire Company of Philadelphia -- the first volunteer fire company in the colonies. Today, Pennsylvania still has the highest percentage of volunteer firefighters in the nation.

"The volunteer fire service is a fine tradition but it will have to change if it wants to progress," Fernsler said.

Without question, the number of active volunteer firefighters is dwindling -- from 210,000 in 1980 to 70,000 today, Fernsler said. During that time, Franklin's numbers dropped from 1,500 to between 800 and 1,000.

Generally speaking, he said, fire companies have enough active volunteers for fire, accident and rescue calls. The problem is that these are the same people raising money, doing public relation, fire prevention, maintenance of stations and equipment and administrative work.

With non-emergency volunteers, firefighters would be free to do what they need to do, Fernsler said.

"The effort to recruit these volunteers is not currently there," he said. "Fire companies need and want these volunteers."

What veterans say

Paul Etter has been a volunteer with Fayetteville Fire Department for 27 years. Although not active as a firefighter, he drives the department's apparatus and helps with fund raising. In a few years, he said, he'll probably retire.

He remembers when the station was the place to hang out -- mostly single members and teenagers. Teens graduated and either went to work or college or the military. The single members got married and had families.

When the alarm sounded, firefighters came from almost every direction, he said, including work and the farm.

Today, Etter said, there are more demands on firefighters -- calls, training, meetings and fund raising.

"What we need is people to do other things around the station," Etter said. "That would help a lot. I think volunteers would stick around longer."

Ted Snively is a paid emergency medical technician at Fayetteville. His fire service career began as a firefighter with the Franklin Fire Company as a junior member. He's now a volunteer with Fayetteville although he said he has little time to volunteer.

Snively also works as an EMT for Cumberland Valley Emergency Medical Services in Shippensburg and Med Cap, doing medical assessments of Target employees. He said he needs all three jobs to support his wife and three children.

"We're not like EMTs in the city, who make $50,000 a year," said Snively, who wouldn't say what EMTs locally earn. "It's the same for firefighters. That's why so many local volunteers go elsewhere to work."

Money a constant challenge

Fund raising absorbs a lot of a volunteer's time, according to Jim Hull, Franklin's president. Volunteers who spend Saturdays on training, Sundays on washing the apparatus, any day of the week pulling people from burning buildings or cutting drivers out of mangled vehicles are the same ones showing up for bingo games, dinners and drawings.

"It's a lot of time," Hull said. "I can't get enough volunteers to work. Some are here four or five nights a month."

Fund raising remains a volunteer fire company's primary income source -- paying for the station, apparatus, utilities, insurance, turnout gear and loan payments. Contributions from municipalities make up 2% of a company's budget, which locally range from $90,000 to $500,000 year.

In 2000, then Gov. Tom Ridge approved a grant program to help volunteers. The money, an average of $6,000 per company, did little to even dent a fire company's financial needs, according to Fernsler.

About 10% of the state's 2,400 volunteer fire companies are financially solvent, he said.

Last fall, voters approved a $45 million grant program -- $38 million for fire companies, $5 million for ambulance and rescue services and $1.5 million for paid departments. Legislators have yet to determine how the program will be administered.

"Grants are not the answer. They won't solve the problem," Fernsler said. "It's like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound."

'State loves ... regional plans'

The alliance, according to Ben Thomas Jr., Antrim Township administrator, could apply for grants to be distributed to the fire companies. The alliance would not be the one spending the money, he said.

At last week's state township convention, Thomas said he was told that if Franklin organizes, grants would be available.

"The state loves to see regional plans," Thomas said. "As an organization, we could bring more money into the county."

Anna Swailes, secretary/treasurer of Metal Township, acknowledged that solving financial problems isn't easy. But that doesn't mean the alliance and volunteers shouldn't try.

"There has to be a partnership between local government and the fire companies," she said. "We both must take a step forward."

Although details have not been worked out, the alliance wants training programs for firefighters and officers. This week's meeting was the group's second.

No longer can volunteers join fire companies and go on their fires call the same day. Today, it could take several months for that to happen.

Stringent training requirements, according to the volunteers, is one of the main reasons they hear why individual don't join or stay. The state requires training in essentials of firefighting and hazardous materials before a volunteer can ride on the apparatus and fight fire.

Training center may help

Other training is needed in vehicle rescue, emergency medical, driving apparatus and officer command. The Franklin County Fire Chief's Association's fire training center is expected to help reduce travel time and enable volunteers to get more training.

The center is being built adjacent to the Franklin County Career and Technology Center, off Loop Road. It would eliminate the need to go to Lewistown, Harrisburg, or even Emittsburg, Md., for training.

"Some state training isn't offered here at the time," North said. "That means we travel and often we wait because there are waiting lists."

Snively said two new volunteers who joined at Fayetteville earlier this month must wait several months for firefighting training. That class started in March.

"So, they wait and watch others go out on calls," Snively said. "It's frustrating."

Snively said he knows of a couple volunteers who left fire departments because of that.

Local governments should do more to help the fire service, which won't change the tradition and heritage of the volunteers, according to Frank Hobbs, a Marion firefighter and Guilford Township supervisor. In no way would the alliance be taking over.

"There'll be no change in what they do or how they do it," Hobbs said. "Hopefully, the companies will have a few more members and the volunteers a little more time."