Alarming situation: Volunteer fire companies fight shortage 'crisis'
Communities all over the country are looking for ways to respond to inadequate numbers of volunteers, who constitute 70 percent of the country's nearly 1.2 million firefighters. One official says the system is in a "crisis" that he hopes doesn't become "catastrophic."
Pennsylvania, home of the very first volunteer fire department, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1736, now boasts the largest number of such fire companies in the nation.
But towns all over the state – and the country — are looking for ways to respond to inadequate numbers of volunteers, who constitute 70 percent of the country's nearly 1.2 million firefighters, according to the National Fire Protection Association, and avert an all-out public-safety crisis at a time when fire calls are increasing dramatically.
The challenges result from a combination of factors, including additional training requirements; longer commutes to work that take potential volunteers farther from fire calls; the rise of two-income households, placing time constraints on would-be volunteers; and fund-raising pressures.
"We've been heading this way for a pretty long time," said Robert Kagel, director of the Chester County Department of Emergency Services. "We're not at a point where no one's going to show up if somebody calls for help. But I feel confident saying we are at a crisis level today. If we ignore the issue, we'll go from crisis to catastrophic."
In the mid-1970s, Pennsylvania had about 300,000 volunteer firefighters. That number is about 72,000 today — more than a 75 percent drop, according to state officials. Across the country, there has been a slow increase in the number of volunteer firefighters since 2011, when numbers reached a 30-year low, but in that same time period, calls have tripled, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. The increase is due in part to false alarms and faulty smoke detectors, fire officials say.
Richard Kosmoski, president of the New Jersey Volunteer Fire Chiefs Association, called the situation in the Garden State "just as bad" as in Pennsylvania. Officials in the two states are considering expanding incentives — financial and otherwise — to attract and keep volunteers.
"It's going to be important that we all consider thinking outside the box," said Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Tim Solobay, speaking this month to the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.
In an interview, Solobay said he is seeing a renewed push to address the needs of firefighters and emergency services responders through legislation. The chairs of the state Senate's committee on emergency preparedness have called for a commission to study the state's fire and emergency medical services system and compile a list of recommendations by June 30, 2018. The General Assembly created a similar commission 14 years ago that produced nearly two dozen recommendations. The new commission will review the progress of those suggestions and build on them.
"Challenges have continued because there is not one solution that will work in every community," said Kimberly Quiros, chief of communications at the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Several bills have been passed or are in the pipeline in the state legislature to aid both volunteer and career firefighters. One initiative would offer tuition relief for firefighters who go to college within the state system. In January, Pennsylvania joined New York, Maryland, Connecticut, and other states in allowing for income and/or property-tax credits for volunteer firefighters.
Soon after Pennsylvania's law took effect this year, officials in Worcester Township, Montgomery County, drafted an ordinance allowing earned-income tax credits of up to $1,000 per year applied to local taxes. They passed the law this month. The town relies on an all-volunteer fire force.
"We're always trying to support that model any way we can. We know the trends are working against us," said Tommy Ryan, Worcester's township manager.
If the volunteer force disappeared and the town had to hire a career firefighting force, Worcester's operating budget would double and its capital budget would triple, Ryan said. Statewide, Pennsylvania taxpayers would pay about $10 billion per year to replace volunteers with paid firefighters, according to the state fire commissioner.
"That's investing a dime for a return that's worth a dollar," Ryan said. "And smart municipalities in Pennsylvania understand that and don't hesitate to support their volunteers."
Officials in Whitpain Township, Montgomery County, are scheduled on Tuesday to consider offering tax credits. The state fire commissioner said he has received calls from about 50 municipalities and fire departments throughout the state asking about the state's new tax-relief law.
Worcester; Middletown Township, Bucks County; and Upper Milford Township, Lehigh County are among municipalities in the state that support municipal employees becoming volunteers.
"They are actively encouraged to respond to daytime calls, because on weekday calls, there's practically nobody around," George DeVault, chairman of Upper Milford's Board of Supervisors, a 30-year volunteer firefighter, and author of Fire Call! Sounding the Alarm to Save Our Vanishing Volunteers told the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors this month. "And that's when you start calling mutual aid from neighboring fire companies. Nobody's there, so it's this domino effect of everybody being called in from around."
At least a few towns in New Jersey offer incentives to volunteer firefighters, such as discounts on building permits and pet licensing fees.
Officials in Chester County have revived a campaign to recruit emergency responders and a website, helpfightfire.com, that they started a decade ago with money from a federal grant that has since run out. The county's Fire Chiefs Association funds the campaign now. A newly formed committee of county officials is searching for ways to boost numbers of volunteers.
"Everyone is trying something new and creative and different. What has worked in the past may not work now, so it's something dynamic that you have to change and work towards," said Neil Vaughn, president of the county's Fire Chiefs Association.
Legislation at the national level includes proposed funding for equipment and training and recruitment and retention programs for volunteer and career firefighters. The National Volunteer Fire Council used federal grants to start its Make Me a Firefighter campaign in December 2015 to raise awareness of the need for volunteers and to recruit them. The campaign's website allows people to look up local opportunities to volunteer as firefighters or support staff. Roughly 2,000 people have submitted applications through the website.
First responders in Chester County applied for a federal grant so they can ramp up their marketing and expand to billboards, advertisements on movie theater screens, and more, said George "Beau" Crowding, deputy director for fire services in the county.
"We're getting the job done," Crowding said, "but we need more people to make us successful."