Williamsport leaders aren't alone in their struggle to find the right balance between having enough career firefighters and keeping taxes manageable.
"We're struggling with those kind of decisions down here," said Reading Fire Department Chief David W. Hollinger.
While the Berks County seat has a population of more than 85,000, compared to about 30,000 in the city, Hollinger cautioned about making drastic reductions.
"There's always the 800-pound gorilla in the room," he said.
The beast referred to is Hurricane Sandy and its track through Pennsylvania before Halloween, when all-available personnel needed to keep communities from coming to a standstill.
"Those decisions to lower manpower can lead to outcry if there is a tragedy," Hollinger said.
Meanwhile, Mayor Gabriel J. Campana has been saying the city can't sustain the costs of paying a staff of 33 and providing full medical insurance and pensions for not only the firefighters but also their spouses.
He'd like to see a voter referendum this spring asking city residents if they would accept a reduced department, supplemented by paid, on-call volunteers.
Reading's 134 career firefighters are supported by three to six volunteers, who are less relied upon when emergencies arise, Hollinger said.
"We depend mostly on our career firefighters," he said.
Over the past decade, Reading has experienced fewer structure fires, due in part to more smoke detectors, sprinklers, heat sensors, public and school education programs and better codes enforcement, Hollinger said.
"We're seeing way more medical-related calls," he said.
In Williamsport, fire calls diminished between 2009 and 2011, according to records provided by Deputy Fire Chief David Dymeck.
In both 2009 and 2010 city firefighters responded to 39 working structure fires, but in 2011 the firefighters responded to just 34 such fires.
Alpha Co., serving State College, a primarily all-volunteer fire department, also experienced fewer fires over the past couple of years, and more medical-related calls, but volunteers are needed and numbers are lower than in the past.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say I worry when there is a major structure fire," said Chief Steve Bair, fire director for the Centre Region Council of Governments and one of only two paid fire staff in the State College area.
Bair said there are an average of 1,000 calls per year, responded to by 110 members, some of whom are given incentives, such as annual stipends of $500 for their fuel cost and wear and tear on vehicles.
Campana envisions a stipend for each major volunteer response.
According to state Fire Commissioner Ed Mann, Campana's not alone in trying to find creative ways to solve a budget crisis.
"It's a sign of the times," Mann said, describing yet another trend.
"While we're seeing more third-class cities laying off employees and not replacing firefighters altogether. We're also seeing more departments that historically were all-volunteer starting to pay firefighters," Mann said.
More volunteer departments have started to offer incentives and hire personnel, which is the exact opposite plan eyed by Campana. That's because of the dwindling ranks of volunteers.
For example, during the years 2006 and 2007 there were 72,412 volunteers in Pennsylvania, Mann said. By 2012, the number of volunteer firefighters decreased to 68,698. "That's 4,569 fewer volunteers serving communities," he said.
At the same time, there was an increase in the number of volunteer departments that hired paid personnel.
For example, five years ago, 1,330 volunteer departments had paid firefighters working in their ranks. By this year, that number had increased to 1,559.
"It tells me those fire departments that were historically all-volunteer are trending toward having paid people in one form or another, while the number of volunteers joining ranks are decreasing," Mann said.
Third-class cities, however, such as Wilkes-Barre, are getting fewer career firefighters compared to five years ago.
"They're not replacing them," he said. "They cut them out altogether because of costs."
Also, the number of structure fires may be down across the state, but the rescue-related calls have increased, and Mann said he's not sure what is the root cause.
"I don't know if anyone can put their arms around why," he said. "I think we'd like to say a lot of it is our public education efforts for the fires, but I don't know why medical-related calls are higher."
Meanwhile, volunteer fire departments and companies that are struggling to recruit and retain members and cities cutting expenses to not have "taxes going through the roof" is a new normal, Mann said.
"Everywhere communities are trying to fund public safety through property taxes," Mann said.
Communities need to decide what they're willing to pay for, or more importantly, what level of services they can afford without impacting public safety, Mann said.
"Not too many firefighters who get paid to do their job are getting rich off the base salaries," Mann said. "But when factoring in the medical benefits, insurance and retirement, it gets expensive quickly."
William E. Nichols Jr., city finance director, said the cost is about $50,000 per firefighter, but the long-term legacy costs for all employees, including firefighters and police, who can retire at age 50 and receive for themselves and their spouses health care for the remainder of their lives, is $55 million.
That kind of benefit package is driving city managers, mayors, township supervisors and councils throughout the state to ask, 'How do I provide an appropriate level of fire protection and do so affordably?'" Mann said.
Whatever happens won't happen overnight, observed Councilman Jonathan Williamson, chairman of the city finance committee.
"The city has long-term budget concerns and has time to make the decision," Williamson said.
Meanwhile, the city and Old Lycoming Township Volunteer Fire Department continue with an alliance that provides the West End, the township and the rest of the city with quick response.
The alliance is an intergovernmental cooperation agreement signed on July 22, 1999, that requires the city to maintain a complement of 33. It sets up two city firefighters at Old Lycoming's station on Dewey Avenue.
Firefighters respond to any alarms in the city or township in the company's truck, known as Engine 14-1.
An agreement also exists between the city fire department and the Loyalsock Township Fire Department, according to township Chief Michael Minnier, but limited fire staffing has not allowed that agreement to be realized to its full potential.