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Pandemic’s impact on volunteer firefighting includes finances, manpower

A firefighter’s boot for donations sits on the counter at the Old Lycoming Township fire company’s Friday Fish Fry at the Old Lycoming Township fire hall. KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette

DuBoistown Fire Department’s social hall, like most — if not all — firehouse social halls throughout the commonwealth, has now remained dark for a year — since cases of COVID 19 began to surface in Pennsylvania.

“There have been no hall rentals, no bingo, no fund raising whatsoever since last March,” borough Fire Chief Paul McKinley said last week.

“Fund raising probably brings in about 45 percent of annual budget,” he said. That money is gone and will never be made up again until conditions allow the fire company to safely open up their social hall once again, he added.

“We had to find ways to come up with money to replace that. We have had to transfer money out of our general fund that we were going to use to buy fire trucks and other equipment,” he said, adding that now such projects are being pushed back because of the money set aside for the equipment has to be used to make up what was lost.

“We just may have to do without some of our essential items,” McKinley said.

“Fund raising brought in $45,000 and $55,000, and that’s gone,” he said. “That’s a huge chunk of our budget. That money could be used to replace turnout gear, truck replacements, truck repairs; firehouse upkeep; pump testing hose testing; events we have to do every year. Now we have to come up with ways to generate income to do those things, or just go without. … We haven’t been able to make that up. We just have been tapping into savings and different accounts, money that was earmarked for other projects.”

If a fire company does not have the funds to do repairs on a fire truck, the apparatus has to be put out of service, and such a move has a direct impact on a community’s public safety, he said.

When the entire commonwealth shut down during March and April of 2020, the fire department also lost another source of income because its ambulance had a lot fewer calls.

“We relay on transfers as an income. These are ambulance calls in which we are transferring patients from one hospital to another. People were not going to the hospital because they were afraid of getting sick, so our transfers were cut way back in March and April,” McKinley, who has been a volunteer fire service for nearly 40 years, explained.

If a patient at one medical facility had to be moved to a specialty hospital to undergo a certain test, a local ambulance service would likely be called to move the patient, he said.

“We probably get 20 to 25 percent of our income from such transfers,” he said.

In Old Lycoming Township, the virus not only has impacted the volunteer fire department’s finances, but “it has really changed the culture” of life in the firehouse as well, according to Joseph Hopple, the department’s public information officer.

While financial figures were unavailable, Hopple said “absolutely the fire company has taken a hit.”

He said the company’s treasurer told him the department was “still trying to figure everything out,” when it came to money lost because of Old Lycoming’s social hall being shut down for a year.

“I think it is fair to say that we have lost at least 20 percent of our income because of the shut down of the social hall and our dine-in fish fry,” Hopple said.

Each year the fire company has held a fish fry in their social hall; eight times in the spring and four weeks in October. They were right in the midst of last spring’s dinners when the shut-down took place. The fire company still has its fish fry, but beginning last fall, everything has been take-out.

“The fish fry last fall was not that good, but this year has been very strong. On Feb. 26, the fire company sold out,” Hopple said.

When the social hall was open, those coming for the fish fry often stayed for a while to have fellowship with one another, he said. Such opportunities to bond and share friendship during a community meal have all gone by the wayside, he added.

“Take-out has really become the norm while last year there was a lot more reluctance to it, they weren’t use to it. Now they are,” Hopple said.

The firehouse also directly felt the impact of COVID last spring in another way when both Lycoming College and Pennsylvania College of Technology shut down. The fire company has nearly a dozen very active firefighters who are enrolled at one of the schools.

“They all went away last spring when the colleges went to remote learning. We lost all of them because they all went home. The colleges shut down,” Hopple said.

“The students all came back in the fall semester, and they are here now, but last spring we had a significant drop in our members. It absolutely cut down the number of firefighters who were available to staff our apparatus,” he added.

For the Muncy Area Volunteer Fire Company, COVID suddenly had a chilling effect very soon after the statewide shut down took place.

A volunteer firefighter responded on an ambulance call and helped take the patient into a hospital emergency room on a stretcher, Fire Chief Scott Delany said last week.

“The firefighter was suddenly quarantined from his place of employment because he ran on our ambulance and took the patient to the hospital,” he said.

“The patient did not have COVID, but still, when the firefigher’s employer found out that he went into the hospital, the firefighter was ordered quarantined for two weeks. He had to go on unemployment. He ended up losing his income for a two-week period,” Delany said.

Nervous that the firefighter might have been exposed to the virus by entering the hospital, the employer did not want to risk the chance that other co-workers could become exposed and become ill, Delany said he was told.

“This scared some of the younger members because they were afraid their employer might very well do the same thing. The volunteers were afraid they would lose their means of income. They very nervous about responding on ambulance calls. The effects were very drastic,” he added.

“The fire company ended up having to put on more paid emergency medical technicians (EMTs) just to cover our ambulance calls. This cost another $45,000 a year just to put the paid staff on.”

“Thankfully, when we went to the three municipalities that we serve: Muncy Creek Township, Muncy Borough and Moreland Township — they all stepped up and made up the difference by providing the income. It didn’t cost the fire company anything because the municipalities paid for it,” Delany said.

“Some members clearly were very, very scared to run on the ambulance,” Delany said, adding that he didn’t blame those who pulled away.

“First of all, you can’t force a volunteer to do anything. Then you expect a volunteer to put themselves possibly in harm’s way and now all of a sudden you have the volunteer’s employer breathing down their back, threatening to take their job away from them,” Delany said. “I hope such a situation does not become normal, because if it does, it will ruin the volunteer fire service.”

When the pandemic first arrived, it was a very trying time for all fire companies because so much was unknown.

“Some members on our ambulance crew suddenly did not want to run calls, they were afraid of catching the virus,” McKinley said.

“That created a problem, because all of a sudden we didn’t have the volunteers,” he added.

McKinley said he he did not at all blame those for suddenly bowing out to go on ambulance calls.

“No one knew how this was going to go or how it was going to turn out. What was the outcome,” he said.

“You had people who went from breathing difficulty to being placed on respirators to death. Volunteers didn’t want to end up taking the virus home to their families and get them sick. So they didn’t want to run calls, and you lost some of your membership because of it,” McKinley said.

“COVID definitely changed the way we as firefighters look at things, no question about it,” Hopple said. “It certainly has been a challenge that none us anticipated.”

In Old Lycoming Township, a young firefighter “whose spouse was expecting opted not to respond to calls for several weeks before the birth last fall in order to make sure he could witness the birth. He was afraid of getting COVID, and if he did get it, that of course would stop him from witnessing the birth,” Hopple said.

None of the department’s members dropped out of the company because of the pandemic, “but some older members are not coming around because of the fear of COVID. We advised them not to come to the firehouse for meetings,” he said.

“Some of our older EMT members are not running on as many calls as they used to,” again because of the fear of catching the virus, Hopple said. “They are still active members, but they are not coming to the station as much.”

Before the pandemic, membership at the DuBoistown fire company “was actually climbing. More people were starting to volunteer, they were getting involved in the fire service. We started seeing that about 2016. Older EMTs were coming back while at the same time we were getting new EMTs into the service,’ McKinley explained.

Just like the situation Delany faced in Muncy, McKinley said some DuBoistown members withdrew because their employeers were reluctant to have them back on the job if they contracted COVID while working on an ambulance.

When members dropped out, “that just means more work for those who remain or there is also the possibility that your ambulance won’t get out at all on emergency calls,” he said.

In Muncy, Delany said “I don’t think we lost any members because of COVID, but I think some of them were very, very hesitant to go on ambulance calls. They didn’t step away from the fire department, they just didn’t come around and run on the ambulance like they use to, which created a problem.”

Hopple said that because of COVID, sadly many firehouse traditions have stopped, at least for now.

“If you talk to a firefighter and ask them when did they first think about becoming a firefighter, many of them probably would say that it was when they were a kid and had a chance to visit a firehouse,” Hopple said.

Of course there have not been any such tours at the firehouse since last March.

Hopple worries that “the spark” that can often begin in a child’s mind to become a firefighter one day all because of a visit that was made to a fire station might be lost, like the socialization that is no longer happening in the absence of the sit-down fish dinners.

Hopple said he hopes that one day in the near future the dinners and tours will once again be a part of life at the firehouse on Dewey Avenue.

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