The website of Rutledge Borough boasts that the tiny Delaware County community has "a fire department, a park, and a stately old borough hall." But last March, the 124-year-old fire company, staffed by volunteers, closed its doors, put its 1982 Sutphen fire truck up for sale, and consolidated with nearby Morton.

The reasons? "Money and manpower," said Jerry Connelly, the president of the new Morton-Rutledge Fire Company. The two departments were short on both, he said. Now, the insignia on the new company's trucks reads: "Two traditions, One vision."

Connelly said the consolidation is working well, with a single disappointment: Only one new volunteer has joined the 30-member force.

Long a Pennsylvania tradition, volunteer fire companies are confronting such a critical shortage of members that towns across the state are being forced to pay to put out their fires - and pass the bills along to already overburdened taxpayers.

"The system is broken," said Rob Brady, a specialist in local-government policy with the state Department of Community and Economic Development who helps fire and emergency-medical-service companies with consolidation plans.

Pennsylvania has roughly 2,300 all-volunteer departments, the most of any state. Since 1998, at least 75 companies have consolidated or regionalized. As of June 30, 59 other groups had asked for assistance from Brady's group. Last year, Brady said, about a dozen companies went out of business or dissolved part of their organizations.

In the 1970s, Pennsylvania had more than 300,000 volunteer firefighters. Now, the number is about 50,000 to 60,000, said Edward Mann, state fire commissioner.

"You can find an individual community where people will tell you it is OK, but as a whole statewide, it is down," Mann said of volunteer numbers. "And it continues to go down each year."

Demands from family and work - coupled with ever-widening training requirements, fire calls, and the constant need for fund-raising for skyrocketing equipment costs - can tax the most dedicated volunteer. Just to complete a basic firefighter certification requires 160 hours of training offered by the state.

Terry Osborne, fire chief of the Winslow Township Fire Department in Camden County, said volunteer departments in his state faced the same difficulties. In 2008, his department brought in paid professionals to help cover the 58-square-mile territory.

Morton-Rutledge's decision may simply forestall the inevitable, state and local fire officials say. In five or 10 years, they contend, fire departments staffed only by volunteers could be extinct.

Mike Melazzo, fire chief in Yeadon Borough, said his volunteer company often relied on fire crews from neighboring municipalities for manpower.

Even with facilities and equipment that would make many professional departments envious, he said recruiting and keeping volunteers is a problem.

Two ambulances, two pumpers, a ladder and rescue truck, and gear for 45 firefighters share space in the company's 1937 former bomb shelter under Borough Hall. There is a room dedicated to filling up air tanks, a rarity in the suburbs, and a separate room for paid ambulance staff, a source of income for the fire company.

The recreation room - an incentive to keep and recruit volunteers - holds computers, games, six sturdy couches, and a huge flat-screen television. A bunk room, for those who want to stay the night, sleeps eight.

But most go home for the night, Melazzo said. And on drill nights, usually only about 15 of the 45 members show up, he said.

Fire companies and state officials say the manpower shortages and fund-raising woes have yet to seriously affect public safety. Companies have become adept at backing up one another.

"We don't know until the pagers go off how many people are available [for calls]," said Thomas Murphy, Marple police chief and a volunteer with the Broomall Fire Company. "To combat, we rely more on our neighbors."

Some municipalities are finding that increasing taxes is the only way to provide fire and ambulance service.

In 2009, the Northampton Township Volunteer Fire Company added four paid firefighters to cover a weekday shift in the 27-square-mile Bucks County community.

The 97-year-old fire company received a $433,520 five-year federal grant to start the program, said Frank Felton, a volunteer and township fire marshal. The base pay for the staff is $45,600, plus benefits, and the four firefighters are considered municipal employees. The addition of paid daytime staff dropped the response time from 13 minutes to about six, Felton said.

When the federal money is exhausted, Felton said, the township will have to pay the full cost. "It is reasonable to say they will have to adjust the taxes," he said.

East Lansdowne's Fire Company 24 has hired a professional grant writer to seek to supplement its $350,000 annual budget, said Chief Thomas Johnson Jr. The company also is adding paid staff, he said. Meanwhile, new safety equipment is needed, bills must be paid, and repairs are anticipated on aging apparatus.

The company turns 100 years old in September. That landmark will come and go on the quiet side, Johnson said.

"The funny part is, we would like to have a celebration, but we just don't know how to pay for it," he said.

In Chester County, the Parkesburg Fire and Ambulance Company, the Pomeroy Fire and Ambulance Company, and the Atglen Fire Company are deciding whether to consolidate or combine services, said Brad Sinrod, chairman of the Western Chester County Consolidation Steering Committee. Members are considering buying in bulk, combining fund-raising efforts and administrative duties, and questioning whether duplicate equipment is needed. They expect to reach a decision by the end of 2011.

The group is not looking to replace the volunteer culture, Sinrod said. "There is a very proud tradition in these three fire companies, and we don't want to lose any of that," he added.

That all-volunteer tradition started in Philadelphia in 1736, when Benjamin Franklin established the Union Fire Company. It had 30 members.

Said Brady: "Ben Franklin came up with a heck of a concept. It just doesn't work anymore."

Contact staff writer Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149 or mschaefer@phillynews.com.