PA Volunteer Fire Companies Struggling to Stay Afloat

July 8, 2024
Lower Paxton Township Deputy Fire Chief Brian Graham said people don't have the time or financial stability to volunteer like they used to.

The big red firetrucks (sic) with their blaring sirens roaring down the streets are a common sight in communities everywhere. What most don’t see are the struggles Pennsylvania’s fire departments face just to get their trucks on the road.

Local fire companies used to have plenty of residents ready to suit up and hop on a firetruck to risk their lives to save people, pets and property. Those same companies now find themselves desperate for volunteers, funding and equipment.

“Twenty years ago, if you left on a call with less than four people, you were in trouble because that was the standard,” Lower Paxton Township Deputy Fire Chief Brian Graham said. “Nowadays, you’re lucky if you get two people to go out the door even though it’s grossly unsafe because that’s just what has occurred over the last 20 years.”

Pennsylvania has the most fire departments in the nation, and very few are paid, according to the Office of the State Fire Commissioner. Many paid departments are located around cities, like Philadelphia and Harrisburg. They don’t span rural Pennsylvania.

A recent fire study in Lower Paxton Township, for example, called for eight paid firefighters and two lieutenants to assist in operations. The price tag? More than $1 million.

A host of factors are colliding to create what fire chiefs say is the worst crisis in recent history for fire protection.

The problems include a steep decrease in volunteers, the high cost of paying firefighters and difficulties maintaining relationships between municipalities and the independent contracted fire companies.

Volunteers, paid chiefs, elected officials and others told PennLive there are solutions, but they won’t be easy or cheap. That leaves the burning question on many residents’ minds: Will there ever be a day when they call the fire department and no one shows up?

A lack of able-bodied volunteers

There’s no agency that tracks the number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania, but talk to any fire chief and they’ll tell you recruitment is down. And it’s reflected by the number of firefighters who respond to fire alarms.

Graham has been in the fire service for nearly 25 years, as a volunteer and chief. He said in his view, people don’t have the time or financial stability to volunteer anymore for fire departments or other nonprofits. There are many older volunteers who work with the fire police or as drivers for trucks, helping to fill in gaps of the department, but there are more strenuous activities required in firefighting that they are no longer physically able to do.

While some departments are fully staffed, every department feels the loss of volunteers when it comes to mutual aid. Mutual aid agreements are deals between fire departments to cross municipal borders and help each other with calls. Decades ago, mutual aid was only used in the case of large fires, but now, reliable departments are called upon consistently for assistance

Harrisburg Fire Chief Brian Enterline oversees a combination department that employs career firefighters and around 20 active volunteers. It’s the only paid fire department in Dauphin County, so they have a steady stream of hands around, but they also have a steady stream of calls outside their jurisdiction.

“Twenty years ago, we went out of the city maybe 40 times a year to assist with mutual aid,” Enterline said. “Last year that number was over 300.”

That’s not to say Harrisburg doesn’t get assistance with big fires as well, but there are simply fewer firefighters per department to ride on each truck. Enterline said during a fire, he typically has to call almost three times the amount of apparatus needed 20 years ago to get the same number of volunteers at a scene. Departments that help one another through mutual aid agreements don’t get paid for their help. They simply cooperate to benefit the public. But that means taxpayers in municipalities that provide a lot of mutual aid are increasingly footing the bill to protect those outside the town.

“If it was any other municipality, there would be people jumping up and down that we’re using our resources to protect someone else’s community,” Enterline said.

People aren’t jumping up and down about mutual aid yet, in Harrisburg at least. But funding and resources are a big problem for many departments.

‘There’s going to have to be an infusion of cash’

Municipalities partner with, and send money to, their fire departments for services. Some towns have a fire tax, a small fee on residents’ income that goes to the fire departments. Officials also can opt to give a fire department money as a line item in their municipal budget or buy fire trucks for them.

In Lower Paxton Township, the township does both. The township owns the nine apparatus that the fire companies use. The fire companies have to fundraise to buy some equipment and pay other bills associated with owning a building, although the fundraising is minimal compared to what other departments have to do. Still, budgeting is tight.

Many fire departments stage raffles or chicken barbeques and try to get the public to donate. Many communities participate in the fundraisers, but they represent an additional burden on the firefighters.

“I was an emergency medical technician for 30 years, and people do it for the love of the craft and the vocation,” state Rep. Mark Gillen (R., Berks) said. “Volunteers aren’t volunteering to sell chicken bakes, flowers and dinners.”

Grants are available, but getting one involves a complex application process that takes precious time.

“If the state could give us a little bit of money, it would be absolutely perfect,” Lower Paxton Township Chair Robin Lindsey said. “The apparatus we just bought was $3 million.”

A tug of war between the state and municipalities is common. Municipalities want the state to step in and grant more money to volunteer firefighters, but the state says municipalities already have many tools in their hands.

Rep. Gillen is a proponent of potentially giving volunteer firefighters mileage reimbursements.

“At some level, the state is going to have to pony up,” Gillen said. “There’s going to have to be an infusion of cash.”

Bills can take a long time to pass through the Pennsylvania legislature though.

High efficiency equipment at a high cost

There are many different types of firetrucks, and departments need to keep up to maintain standards for safety. New and used trucks come with a hefty price tag.

Eugene “Gene” Woodward recently celebrated 50 years with the Monroe Fire Company, and said he’s witnessed a lot of change in those decades.

“We went from wearing red rubber raincoats, hip boots and metal helmets to boots, pants, hoods, gloves and a helmet,” Woodward said. “In the ’70s when I bought my first turnout gear, it was just under $100, and now it’s about $500.”

Woodward now serves as a chaplain in the fire company and as fire police. He said in the 70s, when they got a brand new engine, it cost $100,000, but the company’s most recent engine cost $500,000. It’s safer, definitely, and more effective, but the price tag can pose a big obstacle.

Before his tenure as a state representative, Gillen sat on the Mohnton Borough Council. He recalls when the borough bought expensive equipment for the fire company, and recognizes: finding the money is always going to be a problem.

“It is a dollars and cents issue,” Gillen said. “When you look at the cost of equipment it becomes a back breaker and a non-starter.”

Firefighters training

The amount of hours it takes to train a volunteer is another obstacle departments have to sell to some potential volunteers. The state of Pennsylvania has no established standards for volunteer training. However, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) sets standards for firefighters that State Fire Commissioner Thomas Cook’s office helps facilitate with the State Fire Academy.

The standards are technically required, but no one’s really checking unless there’s an investigation into a line-of-duty death.

For a standard firefighter to go inside burning buildings, training is 165 hours, Cook said.

“There is no [alternative] solution for trainings,” Enterline said. “You can’t have somebody too trained for a job that will kill you.”

Other fire chiefs agree.

“Firefighters today are well-trained and it makes a light year’s difference,” Cook said. “There’s more technical training available and firefighters are just better trained than when I started in 1984.”

Training is an asset to firefighters when they’re face-to-face with flames, but the fact that Pennsylvania doesn’t have state standards can present a challenge when mutual aid is called upon. Firefighters from different departments have the same basic training, but some have additional training from their department, leading to varying skill levels at fire scenes.

“We interact with the municipalities around us, and I know Susquehanna Township and Swatara Township have requirements that very closely match ours,” Graham said. “There are some departments out there where they don’t have all of the training we do, because if they required it, they probably wouldn’t have anyone to show up when the bell goes off.”

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