FUTURE OF FIREFIGHTING: State seeks way to shore up challenged volunteer ranks

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The future of volunteer firefighting appears bleak, with dwindling ranks and soaring costs. Today the Sun-Gazette concludes a three-day series on the volunteer fire service.)

Municipal and state officials continue to search for viable solutions to the issue of declining numbers of volunteer firefighters.

Words such as merger, consolidation and regionalization come up. Although most fire companies are coming to the realization that something needs to be done before the problem reaches a critical stage, few have taken those routes.

There have been successful mergers, where two or more companies combine with all but one relinquishing their names, but there are problems inherent with that.

One example locally is the attempted merger of three South Williamsport fire companies. One chose not to participate and was decertified.

“Once you get rid of your fire company, you can create a lot of bad will,” according to John Yingling, director of Lycoming County Emergency Services.

“There’s a lot of pride in ownership of the fire equipment,” he said, “but there’s also a lot of expense.”

That pride of ownership has existed through the history of fire services in the county. When the city’s fire companies got together to form one paid fire department in the 1800s, according to historical accounts, a brawl broke out and the police were called.

Fire companies have identities of which they are very proud — and they have earned that right.

According to a local firefighter who also works in the prison system, fire departments are like gangs, meaning that they have their own colors and their own territories and the power struggles that go with that.

Many times, merger talks descend into arguments about numbers and names.

Some mergers are not meant to be, said Dave Sanko, executive director of the State Association of Township Supervisors.

The reasons

Three main reasons have been cited for the situation in the state’s fire and emergency services, according to state Rep. Jeff Wheeland, R-Loyalsock Township.

First, there is a reduced number of volunteers. In the 1960s, there were about 300,000 firefighters statewide. Today the number is around 50,000 and many of those are older people.

Another issue is the funding of fire services. Fire taxes, contractual agreements and monetary gifts are some ways fire companies are funded, in addition to the fundraising they must do to supplement monies from the municipalities they serve.

The final issue is maintaining the standard of training.

The answer?

DuBoistown Fire Chief Paul McKinley believes the days of a volunteer company in every community are coming to an end.

“It’s coming because the generations are changing. They don’t have the time. The only ones that are going to be in the fire service are the ones from generation to generation and, as those generations slowly disappear, it’s going to come to an end.

“Something needs to be done,” he added.

Wheeland echoed that thought.

“The number of volunteers are dwindling at an alarming rate,” he said. “We have to find a real solution to save this vital public service.”

It is a problem that the state Legislature has been aware of as far back as 2004, according to Wheeland.

That year, State Resolution 60 was introduced in order to investigate the delivery of emergency services in the state. The scope of the resolution included funding of fire services as well as assuring personnel to respond to emergencies that they defined as retention and recruitment. The Legislature realized that a shortage of emergency service volunteers was looming.

Now, 13 years later, Wheeland said, the Legislature again is revisiting the resolution to see what has been done and to study the situation.

“There is movement in Harrisburg,” he said.

Not ‘one fits all’

One solution Wheeland has suggested is implementing a paid volunteer fire services force. He believes it would attract a younger group of firefighters who may be in the childrearing years and need to supplement their income with a part-time job.

Regionalization is another option in which a fire tax is set at a county level to pay for fire services.

Wheeland visited Alabama, where that solution has been tried. The communities discovered one major flaw. Apparently, the counties did not stipulate what the tax revenue should be used for.

As a result, the fire departments ended up with beautiful buildings but still suffered from a lack of volunteers.

Another option is consolidation, or combining two or more companies, resulting in the termination of all of them and the creation of a new company and a new name.

McKinley gave the hypothetical example of DuBoistown, South Williamsport and Nisbet fire companies becoming one company with a new name. A new, more centrally located building would have to be built, which could cut down on response times because the fire trucks or ambulances would have to travel farther to reach the outer areas.

“(One town) is going to say, ‘We don’t have a fire company, so we don’t have to pay anything now,’ “ he said.

There are other options companies have taken to increase not only their volunteer numbers but the coverage they offer. Those include contracting with local hospitals for emergency services coverage during the day as well as offering live-in programs to college students.

Wheeland admitted there is no one right solution to the problem.

“There is not one solution that fits all,” he said, “no one cookie-cutter solution that would benefit all. But there is movement afoot,” he said.

“It’s quite a pickle,” he added.