State fire leader has a recurring volunteer nightmare

Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner Timothy Solobay has a recurring nightmare.

It’s the one where someone makes a 911, but there are no volunteer firefighters available to handle the emergency.

Unfortunately, the volunteer firefighter numbers trend makes Solobay’s nightmare a more real fear with each passing year.

Speaking to the Old Lycoming Township Volunteer Fire Co. appreciation banquet recently, he pointed out that in the mid-1970s, when he first got involved with volunteer firefighting, there were 300,000 fire volunteers in the state.

Now the numbers have been reduced to 50,000.

Meanwhile, the costs of operating volunteer fire companies have increased, with important equipment costing 10 times what it cost a few decades ago. That necessitates greater fundraising involvement by volunteer firefighters.

Solobay says the increased fundraising responsibilities are driving volunteer firefighters away. He points out that police department personnel and EMS people aren’t made to do fundraisers.

The most rational solution, he says, is for a greater monetary commitment by municipal governments to their volunteer fire companies.

He points to the math.

“Do you want the expense of adding 2, 3 or $4 million a year to your local budget because a number of your volunteers have left and you now have to find a career department?’

It’s hard to argue with his point.

It’s also hard to argue with the idea that multiple volunteer companies with reduced numbers and close geographic proximity to each other need more than ever to consider merging operations.

More municipal support and streamlined operations that create efficiency are the only two ways we can see to stop the nightmare Solobay fears from becoming reality.