The decertification of the Rice Township fire department may seem a remote issue to those living outside the Mountain Top area, but as a page 1A story in Sunday’s Times Leader made clear, the underlying causes of fire department woes are universal, particularly for volunteer departments.
Statewide, the number of volunteer firefighters has plummeted from about 300,000 in the 1970s to an estimated 50,000 today, a staggering decline.
The reasons: The job requires extensive training with little reward beyond the personal satisfaction a volunteer derives. The companies can end up doing more fundraising than firefighting to buy and maintain up-to-date equipment, further discouraging residents from joining. And the big businesses that increasingly seem to replace small, family-owned operations are less willing to let a volunteer leave his job when the call for a crew goes out.
That last one may trigger the most emotional response for many, evoking a bygone day when an employee at a mom and pop business heard the tones on a belted beeper and was not only granted the chance to leave, but encouraged. It’s easy to hearken back to an age when a town’s population was less transient, when a sense of civic pride and community was more than enough to keep volunteer fire departments amply staffed.
The truth about those good old days may not be quite as rosy as nostalgia tints them, but the numbers reported in Sunday’s paper provide a bottom line that cannot be ignored: Statewide, volunteer departments muster only about 17 percent of the firefighters they attracted just 40 years ago.
It is a problem faced by many volunteer organizations, but as state Fire Commissioner Edward Mann noted, “If the garden club doesn’t have volunteers, OK, we don’t plant flowers in the city park for the fourth of July. The bottom line is that we’re still trying to provide a service, but we’re doing it with fewer people.”
And firefighting is unequivocally an essential service.
Solutions seem out of reach in a cash-strapped economy that has slashed federal, state and local government spending. But there is one option that too frequently remains unwisely off the table for Luzerne County municipalities: Regionalization.
For all practical purposes, that the answer Rice Township turned to in decertifying its department, relying on neighboring municipalities to provide coverage. “Mutual aid” is a tried and true practice among fire departments. The drop in volunteers could be impetus for township supervisors and city and borough councils to take further, more formal steps towards the concepts of regionalized police and fire departments, rather than waiting until a local department is unsustainable and just assuming someone else will pick up the slack.
But, of course, regionalized services take time and political will. In the short term, there is a simpler solution each resident relying on a volunteer department can consider:
Sign up to help.