First of two parts
There was a time in the 1970s when the Unionville Volunteer Fire Company was forced to stop accepting new members.
With roster spots in such high demand, the department could not afford to purchase gear for everyone, according to Chief Nathan Wulff, and had to limit the number of volunteers.
It's a far cry from the interest and numbers Unionville and departments across the state are seeing today.
“We're still surviving, but we're not where we want to be,” he said.
Pennsylvania's fire and rescue services are in a crisis “right now,” according to a report released last week. However, recommended solutions to solving that ever-worsening problem are already being done in Butler County, according to fire and EMS officials.
The 104-page report commissioned by the state legislature indicates that as funding decreases, so do the number of volunteers.
It also found issues with training those who are interested in serving.
The report was created with input from the 39 members on the Senate Resolution 6 Committee. Jeff Gooch, fire risk and reduction coordinator for the Cranberry Township Volunteer Fire Company, is listed in the report as one of eight fire or emergency medical services members at large.
The report wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter, pointing out that emergency services are “woefully lacking” in funding. It indicates similar issues were found in a 2004 study, and that the state's failure to take action has made the problem worse. Additionally, reimbursements and other financial supports have continued to decline, which the report indicates will take a commitment from local and state legislators to fix.
In the 1970s, there were roughly 300,000 volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania, but that number had fallen to 60,000 in the early 2000s. That number currently hovers around 38,000, according to the report. Emergency medical services have also seen recent declines in personnel.
Part of that decline is attributed to “changes to our societal view of volunteerism,” the report states. More than 90 percent of the state's nearly 2,500 fire companies are volunteer organizations, according to the report.
Wulff, who also serves as president of the Butler County Fire Chiefs Association, said that no department is immune to dwindling numbers. He said it's tough to comprehend, as the volunteer system has been in place successfully “since the founding of the commonwealth.”
Scott Garing, chief of the Harmony Fire District, said the number of volunteers in his department varies, although there are 60 people who meet active roster requirements. He said a high-profile call with heavy scanner traffic can get up to 20 people responding.
However, it's the lower profile calls that can be a “crapshoot,” he said. Those calls, which often happen during daytime hours, are harder to cover, as work and other commitments take precedence.
“Most people work daylight these days,” he said.
Wulff agreed and confirmed the report's notion that there has been a “cultural shift” away from the type of volunteering and time commitment associated with being a first responder.
“Back in the day, it was just something you did,” he said, adding that the time commitment for training has increased immensely over the years. “It's not a bad thing. ... But it has become a major burden time-wise.”
The report notes, “changes to our societal view of volunteerism” have caused part of the decrease in interest. Gooch said while the idea of volunteering in general may not have changed, the type of commitment needed to be a volunteer firefighter is different.
He said planning ahead for school fundraisers or church bake sales can be easy, “but how do I plan for the 800 fire calls we're going to get a year? How do we normalize that?”
With declining numbers, some agencies have transitioned to volunteer staffs with one or two part-time or full-time paid staff members to maintain state license requirements. Some of those interested in volunteering have left the job, as the need to support their families has forced them to leave the field, the report states.
This also has caused a number of departments to close completely, as the report indicates the number dropped from a high of 1,645 agencies in 2013 to 1,278 in 2017.
All of this has had an impact on overall response time for calls, which have increased as the state's population has aged. The report notes departments are being asked to provide more service on limited resources.
The report concludes that legislative action is needed to address these issues.
“Resources, funds and legislative change must be committed to improve the infrastructure for public safety performance,” the report states. “Moreover, we must try to find a flexible system that will work within this dynamic and challenging environment called Pennsylvania.”
It also notes that due to losing volunteer fire and EMS departments, taxpayers “will face a very steep price tag.”
DEC. 12: What is the solution to the crisis facing Pennsylvania's fire and rescue services?