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.

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.