Tackling the Pa. volunteer firefighter shortage

A local Pennsylvania news site launched an in-depth look at the cause and the solutions to the the nationwide volunteer shortage

By FireRescue1 Staff

CENTRE COUNTY, Pa. — With volunteer firefighter numbers dwindling across the nation, departments all over the country are struggling to balance high call demand with low staffing.

Probably the most striking example has been in Pennsylvania, where state officials released an alarming report in late 2018 that warned the state’s fire and rescue services were facing a crisis. The study found that from a high of 300,000 volunteer firefighters in the 1970s, Pennsylvania now has 38,000 volunteer firefighters in its ranks. More than 90 percent of the state’s 2,400 fire companies are volunteer-based.

Recently, The Centre Daily Times launched a three-part, in-depth series sounding the alarm on Pennsylvania’s statewide volunteer firefighter crisis. The series that highlights the financial and morale challenges volunteer fire departments face, as well as what it takes to keep volunteers happy.

Vanishing volunteers, rising costs

Financial and staffing struggles of volunteer fire departments are making it harder for first responders to keep their communities safe, and they are often forced to spend a lot of time holding fundraisers that often hardly make a dent in the increasing costs of running a volunteer company.

The series takes an in-depth look at what the departments are going through by highlighting escalating equipment costs, a lack of training among volunteers and a Pennsylvania commission that oversees emergency services improvements.

What makes volunteer firefighters stay?

Samantha Gribble gives readers an in-depth look at her experience as the youngest volunteer firefighter at the Howard Fire Company, and President Mark Ott expresses how he would like to see more volunteers like her, but he doesn’t know how to recruit a younger class.

Another young volunteer, Nick Fisher, 21, said he sees his service at the department as an “addicting hobby,” and that saving a life is like “an adrenaline rush before getting on a roller coaster you’ve never been on before.”

However, Assistant Fire Chief Justin Butterworth said many young volunteers end up due to burnout from “all the other stuff.”

“They weren’t aware that they were going to spend so much time training; they weren’t aware they were going to have to raise so much funds,” he said.

What are the solutions?

Several departments have explored various solutions for the volunteer shortage , such as changes in leadership, tax breaks and state commission recommendations that address burnout, training constraints and funding.

Gregg Township Fire Company Chief Scott Breon said a change in leadership increased their total crew by about 80 percent.

“We’re trying to rebuild and trying to get people interested,” he said.

The department is also lobbying for a fire tax to help with the rising costs, but Gregg Township Supervisor Keri Miller said it might not be the best solution as a similar tax did not help much for EMS.

The recommendations released by the General Assembly state commission include proposals to pay for basic training for all first responders, a statewide program that would promote recruitment and retention and credit at high school and college levels to encourage younger recruits to join the fire service.

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