HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Edward Mann recently took a moment to relive his 1960s childhood, when he would stand curbside in Bellefonte in Centre County and the community alarm summoned fire volunteers for an emergency.
“If the whistle were to blow, men would be running in two different directions,” he said. “Some would be going to the Undine Fire Station and some would be running to the Logan Fire Company.”
The local candy store owner closed the shop when the siren rang. Bankers locked their doors and hung a sign that read “Gone to a fire.” Grocers and barbers changed their hats to become rescue workers and help their neighbors.
Most will agree, those days are gone.
Volunteers’ ranks down
Last week in Rice Township, the municipal supervisors voted to decertify the township’s fire department and named Wright Township Volunteer Fire Department the town’s primary first responder.
Among a list of many other grievances, two out of three supervisors said the company had been sparsely staffed and its members did not have sufficient training. The supervisors’ chairman, Miller Stella Jr., also pointed out that around six of the 22 volunteers live more than 20 minutes from the Rice Township department.
While the department needs 15 active members to stay online, former Chief Paul Eyerman admitted it struggled with staffing during daylight hours. But, he said, this is a problem for crews statewide.
Statistics show that in the early 1970s, volunteerism was at an all-time high with some 300,000 fire volunteers in Pennsylvania.
Another study around 1990 showed that number dropped to around 70,000. Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute Executive Director Don Konkle estimates local departments statewide have about 50,000 volunteers nowadays, a mere 17 percent of what they tallied 40 years ago.
Mann said, for starters, the mom-and-pop stores and other small businesses have been replaced by big-box retailers and profit-minded companies that don’t allow their employees to answer emergency calls mid-shift.
Mann was an Air Force recruiter for two years. He said raising a volunteer force for a fire department is harder because there’s little incentive. “(In the Air Force I could) talk to them about money, travel, education, satisfaction and security,” Mann said. “We call that ‘the mattress’ … We don’t have that to offer in a volunteer fire department.”
Other organizations struggling
Mann said fire departments aren’t the only organizations struggling to recruit and retain volunteers. The story is much the same for Lions and Kiwanis clubs, but they’re not concerned with public safety, he said.
“If the garden club doesn’t have volunteers, OK, we don’t plant flowers in the city park for the Fourth of July,” Mann said. “The bottom line is that we’re still trying to provide a service, but we’re doing it with fewer people.”
Mann said he hears volunteers leave departments because the time they thought they’d spend fighting fires is spent at board meetings and fundraisers. “I’ve yet to have a volunteer who left tell me it’s because we had to train too much or we had too many calls,” Mann said.
In the last two years, said Konkle, there have been seven or 10 department decertifications. Most departments, instead of closing, merge with nearby stations.
In Slocum Township, the fire department is directly affected by Rice Township’s decertification. Fire Chief Don Burd Sr. said for vehicle accidents, Rice Township was dispatched simultaneously with Slocum. Now, Dorrance Township’s department falls next in line to be dispatched based on a contingency plan placed with the county 911 dispatcher.
The Mountain Top Mutual Aid Association makes collaboration easier for departments when volunteers are working during the day. As part of the association, they share each other’s territory.
Though there are still eight departments in the association, one company dropping out strains the others because fewer trucks and hands are in the mix, Burd said.