Being a volunteer firefighter is like getting a second job, and when you already work two jobs sometimes there aren't enough hours in the day for a third.
Joining a company requires sacrificing unbroken nights of sleep to battle fires and spending hundreds of hours in training, committing more hours to maintaining equipment and collecting thousands in donations, dollars and quarters at a time. In today's world it's simply too much for many. Across the state membership in volunteer fire companies is on the wane, and local fire companies have not been spared.
It gets to the point anymore, where it's just difficult to get people to volunteer, said Mike Zoshak, president of the Fearnots Volunteer Fire Company in Foster Township. I'm 43 and I feel like I'm the young guy. That's sort of concerning. What does the future hold?
Now the state government is seeking to offer some relief to volunteers in the form of tax credits. A bill that passed in the state House earlier this month would let municipalities and school districts give earned income and property tax credits to volunteer firefighters and emergency responders. Municipalities could establish earned income tax credits at their discretion, and municipalities and school districts could give property tax credits of up to 20 percent of the total taxes a firefighter owes.
The bill's author, Erie County Rep. John Hornaman, said the bill is needed to take on a crisis of declining membership in volunteer fire departments, which provide coverage to more than 70 percent of Pennsylvania's land area. In 1970 the state had more than 300,000 volunteer firefighters; today there are about 70,000.
It's not only the recognition of what the volunteer fire services and EMT services give to the community, but hopefully what this does is it will aid in recruiting new members, Hornaman said.
But is it enough?
Hanover Township Fire Chief Jeff Tudgay said firefighters spend a lot of time on activities other than fighting fires. Becoming a firefighter in his department requires about 220 hours of training; a whole year two nights a week, and that's just the beginning. Refresher courses take place regularly and firefighters also travel for training to maintain state certifications.
Then there are the boot drives, the raffle ticket sales, bazaars and other fundraising commitments that command at least 10 to 20 hours a week, and often more, Tudgay said.
Right now we're in the process of trying to build a new fire headquarters, so we're looking at millions of dollars that we're trying to put together, Tudgay said. A couple weeks ago we put in about 15 hours demolishing the building.
And on top of it all, the fire department responds to more calls today than it did years ago; Tudgay said the department now handles 900 to 1,000 calls a year, or between two and three a day.
When I got in the fire service 30 years ago, if we had 60 calls in a year that would be something, Tudgay said. Last year we ran 970.
Jerry Paxton, safety officer for the Shavertown Volunteer Fire Company, said the demands of the job have made recruitment more challenging.
In the modern day world now, most of the families, mom and dad are both working, Paxton said. Their kids are in school; they're trying to keep active with their kids' school events. They feel they don't have the time to participate in the fire department training.
That has made staffing difficult. Paxton said his department has about 40 regular volunteers, but only five of them are available to respond during the day. It's meant the department has needed to rely more heavily on mutual aid response by neighboring departments.
Tudgay said firefighter retention can be just as challenging as recruitment. Firefighters get new jobs that require them to move or devote more of their time to work, or family commitments eat up more of their time. Sometimes the training they've received as volunteers allows firefighters to land paid jobs in other departments.
So will a tax credit be enough to tackle the problem?
Paxton said it could be a step in the right direction, but was hesitant to guess how much the measure could accomplish.
I do believe that if they're given a break on their taxes or whatever, that's an incentive for them to join, but it's still a factor of these people having the time to do it, Paxton said.
Zoshak also felt the bill would have a limited impact.
That would be good, but if I'm a single guy, that doesn't own any property, where do I benefit from the property tax relief, Zoshak said.
It's got to be user-friendly, and easy for people to take advantage of, he added. If it's cumbersome then people aren't going to use it and people are going to shy away from it.
Tudgay said he didn't have an answer how to make it better, but he suggested another starting point.
Not everybody has to be that guy who goes inside the burning building and makes the save or pulls the hose line, Tudgay said. The fire department needs the behind-the-scenes people just as much as it needs the front line people. If we could get people to do the fundraising and that behind the scenes, it frees up others to go and do that training.
‘I'll run potato pancakes or I'll run a ticket raffle for you;' we need those people as much as we need an on the scene firefighter.