IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Pennsylvania Fire Departments Facing Volunteer Emergency

The current model of volunteer firefighting in Pennsylvania is based on the long-standing tradition going back to the 1700s when Ben Franklin founded the first volunteer department in Philadelphia.

fire (3)
(TNS) - The state of volunteer firefighting is in a crisis.

That is the assessment of Acting Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Thomas Cook and multiple fire officials in the Midstate and across the state.

"We're getting close to a crisis mode in my opinion," Carlisle Borough Fire Chief Randy O'Donnell said, echoing Cook's concern. "Everybody's suffering."

The current model of volunteer firefighting in Pennsylvania is based on the long-standing tradition going back to the 1700s when Ben Franklin founded the first volunteer department in Philadelphia . That model has continued virtually unchanged since that time, according to Cook.

"The fire departments, they need to adapt and change to match the mission," said Gary Neff , the Mechanicsburg Borough fire chief. "Public safety is priority one, that's our motto."

However fewer volunteers means that accomplishing this mission becomes more of a challenge.

"With the evolution of society, the volunteer fire service is facing several crises," Cook said. "The financial crisis: the process of selling hoagies no longer generates enough money to buy a vehicle that now costs between $500,000 and $1 million. The second crisis — it is no longer looming. I think we're actively engaged — is the staff issues across the board. Volunteerism is down."

The issues are complex. Cook and other fire leaders said they range from aversion to change to societal transformations of the family unit where both spouses are now working, to increasing extracurricular activities for children. It means fewer people are coming out to fight fires, which leads to second and third alarms being called not due to the severity of the incident but to the lack of manpower.

" Times have changed," said Dan Grimes , fire chief of the Carlisle Fire & Rescue Service. "Some folks are working two jobs. There's a lot to fit in, plus you've got to have family time. It's a fine balance, it really is."

The impact

O'Donnell described other factors that have led to the crisis.

"There's three things that keep us going, and it's manpower, management and money, and right now, we're kind of like stumbling on all three," he said.

O'Donnell said that as current volunteers retire, fewer and fewer people are taking their places.

"It use to be a family tradition from one generation to the next to get involved in the fire service," O'Donnell said. "The dynamics of our society have changed and somehow we have to change the model and how we deliver the service down the road."

The National Volunteer Fire Council reported in 2018 that volunteers comprise 67 percent of firefighters in the United States . Of the total estimated 1,115,000 firefighters across the country, 745,000 are volunteers.

The number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. reached a nearly 40-year low in 2017 with 682,600 but rose again in 2018 with 745,000. At the same time, call volume has tripled in the last 30 years, due in large part to the increase in emergency medical calls, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council .

"It's been an ongoing problem," Grimes said. "It probably started several years ago. You can see the steady decline in the amounts of numbers."

O'Donnell said he sees the same trend.

"Everybody is struggling for people," O'Donnell said. "You know, the volunteer spirit is not there like it was back a decade, two decades ago."

In Pennsylvania , the number of firefighters is estimated to be between 36,000 and 38,000. The state does not require fire departments to report the number of volunteers. The number of volunteer firefighters is an estimated 30,000. In 1975, that number was 360,000, according to The National Volunteer Fire Council and the state Department of Community and Economic Development .

"We used to turn out 100 men for a fire, but now it might be down below 10 for a rural fire," Cook said. "Those are the main issues. How do we get money and how do we get people."

"It's an oversimplification of the problem to say that we waited too long," Cook said. "Society in 2021 is nowhere near comparable to 1760s Philadelphia . It's a different culture, it's a different society, but we're still using the core business model for firefighting. The problem has been hiding in the background as long as I've been involved (for 40 years). It's really come to the forefront in the last 10 to 15 years."

Under the Fire Commissioner Act, the Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner is the official charged with meeting the "diverse training, operational, and informational needs of the commonwealth's fire and emergency service community."

The Office offers assistance, including the development and operation of Pennsylvania's emergency service training program, the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program (VLAP) that provides low-interest loans to volunteer fire and emergency services organizations, and the state's fire safety education program. In addition, the commissioner is responsible for the development of a comprehensive fire incident reporting system.

Central to the commissioner's duties is the cultivation of a close working relationship with Pennsylvania's 2,400 fire departments and their personnel. The commissioner and his staff function as support and resource personnel for these agencies in dealing with issues such as volunteer recruitment and retention, firefighter safety, intervention programs dealing with juvenile fire-setters, and community safety education.

Cook said the goal is to help fire companies find access to existing funding sources, educate them on what funding sources are available, how to look for grants and low-interest loans.

Time to 'roll up our sleeves'

Jerry Ozog , the executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute , said there's been a steady decline over 20 years with a more acute drop in the past five to eight years. Pennsylvania demographics have played a part in the crisis as well.

"We do a great job in Pennsylvania describing the problem," he said. "We need to roll up our sleeves and start fixing the problem. It won't come from state government. It will come at the local level redesiging the way we volunteer."

He added, "As Pennsylvanians get older and populations decline, volunteer firefighters have to become more creative," he said. "Recruitment has to be constant to keep the levels of membership stable. For volunteer organizations to be successful, they have to focus on people. They have to have a commitment to a county-wide recruitment campaign followed up with local training. That's the key to success."

Ozog said there are proven models of recruitment campaigns if you have dedicated leaders and people involved. In the Harrisburg area, Ozog said he was part of a committee that received a $2.2 million grant to conduct a regional recruitment campaign for 20 municipalities with 22 fire departments. It involved training, a marketing campaign and incentives for volunteers meeting their training goals.

"Incentives are common in areas that have the budget to support it, but that doesn't work for all," he said. "It's a challenge in a rural area. If there are a lot of traditional members who do it for 40 years, and then a new generation wants incentives, there might be internal conflict as well. You really have to have leaders who can reimagine fire departments for the future."

Local fire departments are also strategizing about how these ongoing issues can be remedied. Neff said that his department is becoming more active on social media to draw people in, and also recruiting them at community events. O'Donnell emphasized the importance of "members recruiting members."

Neff values a good on-boarding system that prevents fast turnovers by keeping members engaged. He said his department offers a junior program for teenagers from ages 14 to 18 that doesn't allow them to ride the trucks but gives them opportunities to serve in a lot of other ways.

The program also helps prepare them if they choose to train and become certified interior firefighters later on. Neff explained that the training process takes time, considering the dangerous and demanding nature of the job.

"With that, there's a very large commitment that they have to make," Neff said. "It's not just going over and jumping on a firetruck when a person calls."

The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), a nonprofit membership association representing the interests of the volunteer fire, EMS and rescue services, provides online training to its members for grant funding, recruitment and retention, safety and equipment, and a number of other topics.

Steve Hirsch , chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council , based in Kansas , said small communities can't wait an hour when their house is on fire or they're hanging upside down in a car. He said call volume has increased and society has changed.

Recruitment can be a nonstop process, he said.

"There are departments around the nation that don't have trouble, but there are those that really struggle," he said.

Challenging the model

The National Volunteer Fire Council reported that the time donated by volunteer firefighters saves localities across the country an estimated $46.9 billion per year. The cost of switching to a paid or career firefighting model is not necessarily feasible, fire leaders said.

Ozog said there will be challenges when going against the current model.

"I don't want to say as a blanket statement that the volunteer model is not sustainable," he said. "The grit and community spirit will allow it to be sustainable, but the key is excellent leadership and excellent relationship with municipal government."

According to O'Donnell and Grimes, fire departments aren't alone in feeling the effects of a decrease in volunteerism.

"Unfortunately, we're not the only civic group that's having this problem. It's across the board. It's from fire departments to say Project SHARE or any other organization that uses volunteers as their staff."

O'Donnell said that EMS is struggling with a lot of the same issues.

In spite of this ongoing struggle, local fire officials like Neff remain dedicated to their mission of service.

"At the end of the day, that's what it's all about, bringing optimum service to the community that you serve," he said.

Maddie Seiler is a news reporter for The Sentinel and covering Carlisle and Newville . You can contact her at and follow her on Twitter at: @SeilerMadalyn


(c)2022 The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pa.)

Visit The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pa.) at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.