Volunteer firefighters harder to come by

June 26, 2005|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

WAYNESBORO, PA. - Fire departments in Franklin County, Pa., like others around the country, are losing volunteers, and fire department officials say they don't know how to recruit new ones.

"I read a survey on volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania," Ron Flegel, 64, chief of the Waynesboro Fire Department, said last week.

Flegel is one of five paid career firefighters in the department. The other 50 members are volunteers.

"The survey said the average age of volunteers now is in the 40s," Flegel said. "Twenty-five years ago, it was 25. Younger people aren't joining fire departments like they used to, so the older ones feel they have to stay longer."


The number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania dropped from 300,000 in 1976 to 72,000 today, according to a recently released state report.

Volunteer shortages are most evident when there is a daytime fire, when most firefighters are working at their paying jobs, fire chiefs said.

Chronic volunteer shortages, higher equipment costs and unproductive fundraisers have forced fire companies to do more with less, department chiefs said.

Flegel and others like him blame several factors, among them stricter training requirements for volunteers.

"The training standards are much higher than they used to be," Flegel said. "It takes a lot more time for training now."

Continuing education keeps firefighters abreast of the latest technologies and techniques, but it also is expensive. It costs about $7,400 on average to train and equip a firefighter, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.

Family and work pressures also are greater today, Flegel said.

"People don't have time," he said. "I don't know what we have to do to attract young people."

Businesses and industries in many places are more reluctant to let volunteers off the job today to respond to emergencies, although that has not been a problem locally, Flegel said.

One difference is that fewer volunteers work in local industries anymore, he said.

Mutual aid from other departments helps to fill in during emergencies, Flegel said.

State Rep. Pat Fleagle, R-Waynesboro, volunteers with the Waynesboro Ambulance Squad. He said the state legislature is aware of the volunteer problem and is studying possible solutions.

One controversial suggestion is consolidating fire departments, especially in rural areas, Fleagle said.

"That's easy to say, but if there are seven, eight or nine miles between them like in our area, it's hard to wait for a firetruck," Fleagle said. "People want a firetruck on the scene as soon as they hang up the phone."

Fleagle said the legislature also is looking at an awards program for length of service for volunteers or some kind of pension program for those who answer calls consistently. Another proposal would be some kind of tax incentives for volunteers.

"There's no easy answers," Fleagle said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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