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Firefighters Sound Alarm Over Declining Volunteers

Departments, state official say more incentives are needed to maintain service

By Yousuf Lachhab Ibrahim
The Tube City Almanac
November 28, 2023
Posted in: State & Region

Firefighters from Rainbow Volunteer Fire Co. in White Oak visited Mary of Nazareth Catholic School last month to talk about fire prevention and safety. Like other Mon-Yough area departments, the company says recruiting new members is challenging. (Photo courtesy Rainbow Volunteer Fire Co., via Facebook)

Departments across Pennsylvania are racing to come up with solutions for the declining number of volunteer firefighters. The number of volunteers statewide has dropped from over 300,000 in the 1970s to just above 30,000 now.

“This is not something that really happened overnight,” said Brandon Schmidt, chief of Rainbow Volunteer Fire Co. in White Oak. “The warning signs that this was happening were going on.” 

But Schmidt, who has been a member of the Rainbow company for 22 years, said that efforts to address this decline so far have been largely ineffective.

Last month, Turtle Creek Valley Council of Governments and the Congress of Neighboring Communities held a meeting in Penn Hills with local fire departments to discuss staffing issues in local volunteer companies.

Some of the problems they discussed at the meeting — including burnout and lengthened response times — are all too familiar to Mon-Yough area fire departments.

“Over the last 40 years, we’ve seen a steady decline,” said Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Thomas Cook, who also attended the meeting in Penn Hills.

“The concern is, in some organizations, we’ve reached the point that there are not enough (firefighters) to really field an effective firefighting force,” Cook said in an interview.

Cook will be launching a research project between December and January to gather much-needed data and statistics.

Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Thomas Cook speaks to local officials and fire department volunteers during a Oct. 18 meeting in Penn Hills. (Tom Leturgey photo)

One of the contributing factors to not having a solid census number of firefighters is that the method for counting is inaccurate. According to Cook, the only method for estimating the number of firefighters in the state is through the Pennsylvania Fire Information Reporting System.

“A limitation there is it doesn't track discrete individuals,” he said. For instance, if a firefighter volunteers at more than one station, as is frequently the case, that person will be counted multiple times by the system.

Vincent DiCenzo, chief of the Fire Department of North Versailles, is also launching a study of his own. “We’re preparing to sign our first level paperwork with the intent to perform a study.” The study will review the needs of the fire departments within the East Allegheny School District communities, which include North Versailles Twp., East McKeesport, Wilmerding and Wall.

DiCenzo, who has been firefighting for 20 years, said that in the past, he was worried about getting two fully staffed fire trucks on the road. Now, “it’s a stretch even to get one fully staffed fire truck out on the road,” he said.

It has also become a much more common occurence in recent times for fire companies to rely on mutual aid. “Forty years ago, an individual volunteer fire department would handle an incident in its community,” Cook said. “Now, we’re relying on all the surrounding community fire departments to show up and help out in order to get the right resources.”

Cook, who has been a member of the fire service himself for 40 years, estimates that well over three quarters — perhaps close to 90 percent — of Pennsylvania firefighters are volunteers.

The city of McKeesport is the only full-time paid department in the Mon-Yough area. Swissvale Borough has a paid department as well as a volunteer department. Some communities, such as Dormont Borough, have some paid full-time firefighters who help a volunteer department.

But most Western Pennsylvania communities, outside of McKeesport, Swissvale, the city of Pittsburgh and a few other municipalities, exclusively use volunteer fire departments.

When asked why firefighting relies so heavily on volunteers, Rainbow fire Chief Brandon Schmidt said, “It’s cheaper.”

Communities “would be paying out a heck of a lot more — you know, in health care and salaries and all that other stuff — if they had to pay people. So they became reliant for so many years, especially in Allegheny County,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said that the most successful programs for recruiting more firefighters have been the ones that offer tangible benefits, mostly financial.

“I’ve been able to talk to a lot of fire departments throughout different areas of the state,” he said. “And the best incentive programs, do you want to know what they’re doing? They’re paying people.”

Schmidt said the volunteers in these programs are paid per call, paid for their training, and paid for their duty shifts, with the only thing volunteer-based being the time commitment.

Fire Department of North Versailles, or FDNV, is a product of consolidating three departments. The department is studying whether additional sharing of resources among the East Allegheny communities would be useful. (Photo courtesy Fire Department of North Versailles, via Facebook)

DiCenzo said, “I think progressively, the volunteer fire service is just going to continue to decline. I don't know what the long-term solution is other than pay fire departments, pay firefighters — some type of payment or a stipend or salary for people to crew fire trucks.”

Monetary compensation is “one tool in the toolbox,” Cook said, but a variety of incentives will be needed to increase recruitment numbers, as even career fire departments have trouble recruiting new firefighters.

The demands on firefighters have increased significantly in recent years. As more people leave, it falls on the remaining firefighters to cover for those absences, leading to an increased workload. “The demands of society that are placed on people don't leave as much free time to do firefighting for free,” Schmidt said.

When people have to pick up the slack for absent coworkers, he said, they “get burnt out faster, you know. They get tired faster. And that’s when accidents happen. Thank God we haven’t had to really experience any of that.”

In addition to the increased workload, the training required to be a volunteer firefighter has increased from 16 hours a few decades ago to 200 to 300 hours now, so citizens interested in volunteering have trouble finding the time to dedicate themselves, local chiefs said.

“Training time has increased exponentially,” Schmidt said, “That’s not a bad thing. That’s actually a good thing. But it just makes it hard on the volunteers to try to do that.”

Volunteering as a firefighter is also different from volunteering for other worthwhile causes. Schmidt speculates that the health risk that comes with firefighting — including injuries and even death — deter some people from doing such a job for free.

One of the suggested solutions for the problem is regionalization, combining the efforts and resources of multiple fire departments in order to expand the area of their service.

A report from the state Legislative Budget & Finance Committee of Pennsylvania said that regionalization could come in many forms, including mergers, consolidation of services and sharing resources.

Allegheny County has over 200 fire departments, which several officials said is an extremely high amount for the relatively small population it possesses. Fire response efforts are spread far too thin with the current system, they said.

DiCenzo’s department, FDNV, is the result of a merger between three fire departments in 1999: Dixon Hollow, Sunset-Central and Green Valley.

He has been meeting with fire departments and officials within the East Allegheny school district in the hopes of further consolidating resources in order to provide a more efficient service to the community.

Even this, however, is a temporary solution, he said, as it is not likely to cure the firefighting force of its declining numbers.

Some municipalities help their volunteer departments purchase fuel, supplies and equipment to reduce the burden of fundraising. But new equipment, Schmidt said, is not useful without enough people available to use it.

“If you can’t guarantee that those trucks the taxpayers are paying for — if you can’t guarantee that somebody is going to go down and answer the fire and you can’t get that fire truck to the scene of an emergency — well then, the truck’s no good,” he said.

Yousuf Lachhab Ibrahim is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh and a recent Penn State University graduate. He won a Golden Quill award for his work at the Penn State Greater Allegheny Gazette.

Originally published November 28, 2023.

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