NANTICOKE — When Nanticoke Volunteer Fire Company Chief Michael Bohan became a fire fighter in 1976, the city’s many departments each had a waiting list of those wanting to be members. Today the help wanted sign is up in each of those departments as membership has dwindled and the time constraints on existing members has increased.
“Nobody’s banging down our doors right now,” Bohan said. “And those that do show up and they hear what they have to do, they’re not so sure.”
Between the 168 hours of training, fundraising, equipment and vehicle maintenance and actual fire duties, the job is not an easy one and it’s time consuming.
“The guys have jobs, kids, wives, family obligations,” Bohan said. He understands that life is more hectic than days of yore and the volunteer organizations including fire companies suffer.
“We used to respond to fires and volunteers would line the street and watch because there wasn’t a job for them to do. Today, everybody that shows up has a job to do and we could use more help,” Bohan said on Friday.
A middle of the night fire this July at Reilly Finishing Technologies on Alden Road was contained by the nine firefighters that responded to the alarm. Decades ago four or five times that number would have been the average response total.
Nuangola Volunteer Fire Department Chief Anthony Wilczynski has been on the (unpaid) job since 1964. He said when he started, there were 25 active members who would respond to any given call. That number is down to about 10 today.
“I just don’t think the people have the time for it,” Wilczynski said. And though there are some junior members that sign up, retaining them isn’t so easy.
“They get older, get married, move away from here and then we have to replace them with someone else,” the chief said. The inability to do too much fundraising because of lack of time also impacts the operating budget and since Nuangola Borough donates about $1,200 per year — less than the cost of gas for the trucks, the chief notes — it’s a tough situation.
The annual bazaar the company held had to be scrapped five years ago because of a lack of men to staff it. In its place a Crab Fest was established each August. The one-day fundraiser requires less man power to staff it and is the largest annual generator of funds for the department.
The number of hours spent fundraising is a drag on members and something Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner Edward Mann said he’s heard as a key reason why volunteers quit.
“In all honesty, I never had a former volunteer firefighter tell me they quit because there was too much training. I hear one of the following reasons why people leave: They grew tired of the lack of leadership in the firehouse or they spent more time doing work to raise funds to support the fire company then the time actually responding to emergencies,” Mann said.
“Our firefighters have been sounding the alarm for years: they are running on fumes. Their volunteer pool is dwindling, and they have literally burnt through their funds. Chicken barbecues, pancake breakfast and sportsmen’s raffles just aren’t raising enough revenue to keep the lights on and engines running. Equipment and training costs have skyrocketed,” state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township said.
But it’s been the manpower issue that is perhaps having the most impact.
In Luzerne County, multiple departments have signed mutual aid agreements and some have signed formal merger agreements including those in the Back Mountain and Mountain Top. Rice Township decertified its volunteer department this year and supervisors there signed a 10-year-deal with neighboring Wright Township to provide fire services.