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Chief: firefighters volunteer are scarce

September 23, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - A dwindling number of active volunteer firefighters has Chambersburg Emergency Services Chief John Vanlandingham examining a strategy to rely on smaller, more highly trained groups to respond to emergencies.

Vanlandingham told the Chambersburg Borough Council Monday that the number of active volunteers in the four companies that serve the department has declined from 44 in 2002 to 22 this year and only 12 firefighters responded to more than 5 percent of those calls.

"In the past you had a steady stream of younger people coming in" to the volunteer companies, Vanlandignham said Wednesday. He said the decrease in the number of volunteers is a problem many departments and fire companies face.

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"We're attributing it basically to the increased standards for training by the state," he said.

Basic firefighter training is about 100 hours and basic first responder emergency medical technician training can be another 110 hours, he said.

While fewer citizens are willing to put in the time for the training, Vanlandingham said the department also has to compete with other area fire companies for a shrinking pool of volunteers.

In his report to the council, he said one engine responded to 322 calls in the first half of the year and 68 percent of the time it only had the driver on board. During the same period, the headquarters ladder truck rolled out with only a driver on 77 percent of its 182 calls.

Vanlandingham said the lack of personnel at the stations means more pieces of equipment are being sent to make sure there are enough firefighters at the scene. Ambulance crews have been used to act as firefighters, but the increasing volume of ambulance calls makes that impractical.

Council President William McLaughlin said Wednesday a recent fire in the borough drew 18 pieces of fire equipment, but only 22 firefighters.

"I think, inevitably, in the future we are going to need more career staffing" to supplement the department's 18 paid fire and ambulance personnel.

Vanlandingham said, however, his initial plan is "not to throw people at our problems." Instead, he is studying ways to "redefine the department structure," including a new supervisory system that relies more heavily on paid firefighters

The department stations personnel at the headquarters on North Second Street, the McKinley Street station and a driver at the Franklin Fire Co., Vanlandingham said. He said redeploying personnel to the headquarters station would allow fewer vehicles to go out with more firefighters on board.

He wrote in his presentation that the "department will rely on a quick strike mentality of consolidated resources" with smaller, better trained crews.

"I feel, ultimately, we should have a countywide fire and rescue service," that would rely more on professional personnel, McLaughlin said. "We've got the equipment, we've got the facilities, but we don't have the manpower."

With more than 20 fire companies in the county, the day when they are combined into one service could be a long time in coming, McLaughlin said.

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