Faced with shrinking volunteer numbers, Pa. fire departments embrace new strategies to bolster ranks
Since 2000, the number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania has dropped from 60,000 to 38,000
By David Hurst
The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — In the past year, Richland Township Fire Department hired four full-time firefighters to drive its trucks — easing the daylight demand on its busy volunteer crew.
Southmont Borough approved a tax credit in recent years to encourage borough residents to volunteer for the community’s fire department.
And through federal funding, Somerset Volunteer Fire Department created a video to draw in young volunteers using the language they speak — social media.
The methods may be different, but the region’s first responders have a common goal — bolstering their graying ranks.
“We need new blood,” Somerset Volunteer Fire Department Public Information Officer Dave Sube said. “I think anywhere you look — not just our area — there’s a shortage in active volunteers.”
Local fire departments’ leaders and state officials are realizing they cannot use traditional methods to change the trend.
“The days of hanging a ‘help wanted’ ad on the front of the local fire station to get new volunteers are long gone,” Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Thomas Cook said.
‘Our golden years’
The dwindling number of fire and emergency medical services personnel is a nationwide problem, but it’s perhaps worse in Pennsylvania than in most other states.
Just two states rely on volunteer firefighters more than Pennsylvania does.
Unlike their paid counterparts within cities such as Johnstown, Altoona and Pittsburgh, nearly 97% of Pennsylvania’s firefighters are volunteers. The national average is just 70%.
Since 2000, the number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania has dropped from 60,000 to 38,000, the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute reported. That’s about one-10th of the total the commonwealth had in the 1970s, when its firefighting ranks measured at 370,000.
Today, most volunteer firefighters in this region are middle-aged or well into their retirement years, Upper Yoder Township Deputy fire Chief Pete Long and Conemaugh Valley Regional Ambulance Operations Manager Dave Rykala said.
Rykala’s department is the last mostly volunteer ambulance unit in the Greater Johnstown area. And Rykala has seen what happens when dedicated volunteers age out or pass away, he said.
Ambulance services in Franklin Borough , East Taylor Township , Cover Hill and East Conemaugh Borough formed Conemaugh Valley Regional Ambulance more than 15 years ago when circumstances got to the point that the individual communities couldn’t staff shifts alone.
For years, the collaboration enabled the agency to staff three ambulances, he said. Now, Rykala is happy just to staff two, he said.
“It’s just Franklin and East Taylor’s crews now,” he said, “and we handle approximately 1,300 dispatches a year.”
He said Conemaugh Valley’s dedicated staff — seven paid medics and 10 volunteers — are all “basically in our golden years.”
Johnstown Fire Chief Bob Statler has seen changing trends impact both the paid and volunteer ranks of firefighters.
As the city fire department’s leader, Statler said filling jobs isn’t a problem — but the number of people entering the field has fallen drastically. Just 12 qualified people tested for vacant positions at the Johnstown department this year.
“Eighteen years ago, it was 60,” he said. “Back when I tested decades ago, there were 150 people testing.”
Statler is also a longtime Windber firefighter who has seen the impact hit volunteer departments more directly.
Over the past year, the Windber department — like Richland Township and West Hills Regional — hired its first paid firefighter to drive the apparatus to emergency calls.
Statler said “generational” support — children of firefighters who followed their parents and grandparents into fire stations — are no longer enough to fill volunteer rosters.
“Now, instead of those families having five children, maybe a family is having two — and if you’re lucky, maybe one joins,” Statler said. “The younger generation, they don’t have the time or desire to volunteer. If they want to be a firefighter, they’re pursuing it as a career.”
The fact that the work saves lives, homes and businesses isn’t enough of a draw, Rykala said.
“Volunteerism is falling off the face of the earth,” Rykala said. “We do it for community pride. We want to help our neighbors. The younger generation has too many distractions.”
Gen Z’eroing in
Other agencies are simply rethinking how they seek the attention of prospective emergency responders.
Somerset’s fire department is using its funding to reach out to young community members through modern marketing — social media videos and advertisements directly targeting candidates with information about the perks, benefits and challenges of volunteer firefighting.
“Kids today are about social media,” Sube said. “They aren’t going to see something on a generic website. We’re going to reach them on Facebook or Instagram.”
In the Boswell area, North Star High School civics teacher Christian Boyd has been taking the same approach within classrooms.
Boyd, a Pennsylvania State Fire Academy instructor since 2001, established a junior firefighter training program at North Star High School five years ago that enables students to earn most of the training and certifications they need to become certified firefighters when they graduate.
The program has been a “big benefit” to the five fire departments that serve North Star’s neighborhoods, he said. He estimated 80 students have completed the one-credit program since 2018.
“For Stoystown, it’s helped tremendously,” said Boyd, who serves as that department’s assistant chief. “We had to add another gear rack for our junior firefighters.”
But even his program hasn’t been immune to manpower challenges. The program had to be paused this school year after Boswell Fire Department’s ambulance service ceased earlier this year. Boyd said he had relied on the ambulance service’s on-duty staff to bring in the equipment and apparatus being used for daily lessons and other support.
It’s not a question of whether the program will return, but how, Boyd said, noting that he’s working out the details.
Somerset County Emergency Management Agency Director Joel Landis praised Boyd’s program, saying it’s the kind of outside-the-box concept needed to combat the personnel crisis.
Richland Township Deputy fire Chief Robert Heffelfinger said that departments have to continue adapting — and try to think “younger.”
It’s not easy, given that most firefighters are parents and grandparents tasked with trying to encourage people 40 years their junior to join their cause.
To do that, Richland’s department revamped its station’s day room into a home theater that’s popular among new recruits. They’ve encouraged them to use interactive apps to stay connected to daily calls and happenings, Heffelfinger said.
“To keep them interested, we’ve got to meet them where they are now,” Heffelfinger said.
Such changes may not be as interesting to older volunteers, but those people benefit from the presence of younger reinforcements — paid or unpaid — who can lighten the load on longtime members “and ease their stress levels,” he said.
Sube noted that some programs — such as volunteer tax credits that communities such as Southmont adopted — are better designed to help departments retain existing volunteers with homes and families.
But he said departments need as many options as they can get to recruit and retain volunteers, and he credited the Office of the State Fire Commissioner’s ongoing efforts to help.
The commission has operated for years to help meet the diverse training, operational and informational needs of Pennsylvania departments. But the continued trend of dwindling numbers has spurred the commission to adapt its outreach and support, said Cook, the state fire commmissioner.
These days, Cook’s staff are crisscrossing the state, offering help to the state’s more than 2,100 departments, he said.
Somerset County’s fire chiefs association will meet with them later this month to share ideas, Landis said. Cook said it’s a chance to inform them about programs, funding streams and new state laws designed to help departments.
But the staffers are also gathering success stories in boroughs, cities and townships that other departments might be able to duplicate.
Over the past year, Tracie Young-Brungard was hired to oversee both missions. As the Office of the State Fire Commissioner’s first-ever recruitment and retention coordinator, she acts as a “conduit” between the agency and local departments to help them identify programs, resources and initiatives to plan for and address their issues, she said.
“What might work in a city or borough might not work in a rural area,” Cook said.
But there are some messages that can apply to most departments, Cook and Young-Brungard said — among them, that it’s vital to improve in-house planning for the future; market to the community; and communicate with government leaders in the boroughs, towns and townships they serve.
Using Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants, for example, to add paid staff might be an option for some departments that can afford to pick up the salary and benefit costs after the grant-funded five-year term expires.
Other incentives, such as junior firefighter training programs, could help — but just 35 schools statewide currently offer fire commission-sanctioned programs, according to Cook.
Cook said the fire commission is working with the state Department of Labor and Industry , the state Department of Community and Economic Development and the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors to develop and fine-tune other potential solutions to help departments. Yet it’s also going to take improved partnerships at the municipal level to make inroads in many cases.
Cook noted that communities are state-mandated to ensure that fire protection is provided for communities.
They’re required to help cover the cost, too, but there’s nothing spelling out how much they must contribute, Landis said.
Cook said that struggling fire departments need to be willing to have tough, honest conversations about the services they provide and their staffing needs, and to do their homework to convince municipal leaders to bolster annual financial support.
“We want departments to understand they need to be meeting with municipal officials more than just the annual once-a-year requirement so they can have open, honest conversations about wants and needs,” he said.
Cook said the fire commission is aiming to ramp up staff alongside Young-Brungard who would be able to serve different regions as consultants to work with departments.
But they are also encouraging first responders at the local level to have someone certified in-house in recruitment and retention, through programs such as that offered by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, to focus on team building, mentoring and other efforts.
Accessibility is vital, Young-Brungard added.
When someone reaches out to a department, someone should be there to respond, whether it’s answering the phone or reacting on Facebook.
Commission officials noted that social media pages create new ways for departments to connect with their communities, attract volunteers and promote fundraisers.
The better departments understand their unique barriers to finding and retaining members, the better the state commission can help, Brungard said.
Cook said the commission is working to update its website with an interactive map displaying fire departments statewide.
The current site already includes a menu of proven recruitment resources fire departments can pursue.
“Our message is ... that our office is here and we have a program to help you,” Cook said.
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