Volunteers always in demand

Plenty of work both fighting fires and behind the scenes

LEWISTOWN — Think of all the potential places to volunteer at — churches, schools, after school programs, community organizations. What is the one thing they all have in common? They all take time for the good of the community.

One organization that surely does this is firefighting.

In the Juniata Valley, all fire departments are staffed with volunteers. A fundamental element of public safety, firefighters do more than simply fight fires; they can be called for an emergency anytime day or night. However the problem facing local fire departments is a lack of volunteers.

“The volunteer service is dying,” Highland Park Hose Co. Chief, Bill Fike, said. “Service retention rates are at an all time low and there seems to be no solution.”

In fact, since the 1970s, the number of volunteers has been in decline across the state. In the 1970s, the state of Pennsylvania had approximately 300,000 volunteer firefighters. In 1990, the Office of the Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner conducted a survey, which discovered that number had dropped to about 70,000.

“We are struggling to retain members and recruit new ones,” said Ron Byler, assistant Chief of the Belleville Fire Co.

The numbers prove Byler’s point. While the state fire commissioner’s office has not completed a survey since the 1990s, it is estimated that the 70,000 number has dropped between 50,000 and 60,000. Mark Wolfgang, Decatur Fire Co. chief, said the idea of firefighting is a dying trend.

“There really is no incentive to get people to volunteer,” Wolfgang said. “The biggest incentive is they get to help their neighbor.”

However, no single organization at any level seems to be able to figure out why the numbers continue to drop.

Some counties, states, departments offer private incentives for volunteers. These range from a small stipend, and even reduced taxes, depending on the area. The problem is that these incentives are not consistent from program to program.

“One thing I can offer is that I can train you for free,” Wolfgang said. “So far that has been an incentive for my members, but its not getting people in the door.”

“I remember when you joined a company and that very night if there was a call you could ride the truck,” Lewistown Borough Fire Chief Bob Barlett said. “It’s not that way any more, and in some ways that is better for the service.”

To become a certified interior firefighter in the state of Pennsylvania, a person must complete four essential classes, coming out to approximately 188 hours of class time.

Ed Mann, chief of the East Derry Fire Co., said people just do not have that kind of time.

“We want guys to train, respond to calls, maintain equipment, attend meetings and everything else,” Mann explained. “It is just hard for people to want to commit. Many stations don’t have that kind of manpower.”

“Years ago there was adequate manpower, but now there is a core group at each station,” he explained. “At one point that group would be around 30 people, now 15 is the average.”

Fike said this is the reason consolidation will happen eventually.

“At some point you have to consider what is best for the community you serve,” he said.

Manpower is also the reason so many different companies are called to the scene of a fire. Byler explained that the operating procedures for Belleville Fire Co. is that they should not leave the station for a call with less than four people.

“However, we sometimes leave with two,” he said. “We are waiting on people to respond, but depending on the day it is hard for people.”

Wolfgang said last year the Decatur Fire Company averaged 157 calls for the year, with an average time on scene at approximately 52.83 minutes.

“That may not seem like a huge amount time, but when you have a full-time job and the call was at 3 a.m., it is hard,” Wolfgang said. “Firefighting is not a time friendly business.”

There is more to being a firefighter than just responding to calls.

“There are things, like paperwork, that can help the department,” Mann said.

The idea behind a recent Burnham Fire Co. event was to get people interested in becoming members of the company, explained Mike Mowery, a current member of the company.

Burnham Fire Co. president Scott Mauery said the event, which was held Oct. 7 was a success.

“We had several new applications just from talking to people,” Mauery said.

By having volunteers of all kinds means a resident can help at a fundraising event, which could open those members who are trained to fight fire to be able to do that.

“It is good for the public to just be a social member,” Barry Sunderland, assistant chief McVeytown Fire Co., said. “Both sides are important, can’t have one without the other.”

Mann said, he believes, if the trend of losing volunteers continues then when someone calls 9-1-1 for an emergency no one will be there to respond.

“No one will be there,” he stated.

To learn more about how to volunteer all the chief’s said to call your local station. Each station is unique in their exact needs.