Richard Hedrick works at his home office in East Vincent Township in northern Chester County, a self-employed computer programmer. And several times a week, he rushes out to fight a fire or help out at some other emergency.

But unpaid volunteer firefighters like Hedrick have been disappearing as surely as the black-and-white dalmatians that sat on engines roaring to fires a century ago.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the decades-long decline of volunteer firefighters might have reversed in Chester County.

But only briefly.

Glenn Allison, 46, president of the Chester County Fire Chiefs Association, who owns a parking lot maintenance business in Downingtown, said in an interview that, "there was a steady increase shortly after 9/11, because everybody was in the spirit of the thing.

"And then it just steadily declined."

Justin Fleming, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner Ed Mann, said that a 2005 state legislative report documented the decline.

"In 1976," Fleming said the report showed, "there were roughly 300,000 volunteer firefighters statewide. In 1985, that number dropped to about 152,000, and in 2005, about 72,000."

The Chester County decline "was pretty pronounced," said Allison, a volunteer firefighter. "It was obvious to see," but he added that he had no hard numbers showing how many volunteers there are in the county.

And Fleming said he knew of no year-by-year figures for volunteers on a statewide basis. Allison said he knew of no Chester County numbers.

At the all-volunteer Avondale Fire Company in southwest Chester County, Chief Michael P. Decker said that active membership of 40 to 50 in the 1980s, when his father, James, was chief, has declined by almost half.

But that has not affected the quality of firefighting.

"It's the same 15 to 20 guys per incident," Decker said, the same number as turned out for house fires in the 1980s.

The well-reported nationwide decline in volunteer organizations was highlighted by Robert D. Putnam in "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," published by Simon & Schuster in 2000.

Bowling Alone's Web site states that at least since 1975, "we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently and even socialize without families less often. We're even bowling alone."

What has been hurting volunteer fire companies?

There's lack of time.

In his 31 years as a member of the volunteer West Bradford Fire Company outside Downingtown, Allison said the primary factor, as in much else today, is "the time constraints people have on their schedules."

Then there's location.

Many people don't work near their homes and therefore don't live near the firehouses in their hometowns.

Then there's ignorance.

"It's possible a lot of people don't understand what we do and how we do it. People move out here from the city, they're used to having paid fire departments and think it's the same as in the city." Some suburban departments have even hired a few paid firefighters to supplement their volunteers.

In East Vincent, Hedrick seems a bit harsher.

"It's becoming a problem because people don't want to commit. It's a lot of hours."

On the day when he was interviewed, he was distracted from the computer work that pays his grocery bill.

"I went out today three times on calls, because I work at home," Hedrick said. "People who can do that are becoming fewer and fewer."

His Ridge Fire Company covers all of South Coventry and East Coventry, he said, and pieces of three other townships.

In the three years that Hedrick, 56, has been a firefighter, membership has been "pretty static" at about 30.

He speculated that "you go back 30 years, you'll probably get 30 people out to a call. And now you're lucky if you get six or seven."

The quality of firefighting has not declined, he said. "Not yet. But it's one of our fears, as fewer and fewer people volunteer."

In Avondale, Chief Decker, 31, who works for a mushroom farm, is seeing no youth movement among his volunteer firefighters.

"We don't have a lot of junior members, like we used to," Decker said, referring to those between 16 and 18 years old.

Though they can't go into a burning structure until the fire is under control, Decker said the juniors learn the nuts and bolts at emergency scenes.

"A lot of people we have, like myself, are second- and third-generation firefighters."