As ranks dwindle, volunteer firefighters make time to serve
CARLISLE, Pa. (AP) — With the rosters of Pennsylvania’s volunteer fire companies dwindling, one might think it would be a disincentive for the firefighters who remain, knowing that their backup is growing thinner and thinner.
But if anything, at least for Carlisle’s companies, it’s steeled their resolve.
When Rhys Eastham, a volunteer at Carlisle Fire & Rescue Services, was on shift one night last week, the only people on the truck were himself and one of the company’s paid part-time drivers.
“Even if it’s an automatic alarm or something that seems minor, I’m going to respond because I know that there’s no one else to do it,” Eastham said.
Like many local volunteer firefighters, Eastham sees the fire service as his most critical work. His day job is just for the money.
“If I could figure out how to make this pay the bills, I would quit corporate America forever,” Eastham said.
At Union Fire Company, Carlisle’s other major fire service, volunteer Ed Kodish has been on the trucks for 19 years, having started when he was 14, and the pool of volunteers was much larger.
“You might get multiple companies to respond, but each one might only have a driver and one volunteer on the truck,” Kodish said.
“It makes things more difficult,” Kodish said. “But to me, it also makes it even more interesting. I know I need to get things done.”
Statewide, the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped from around 300,000 in the 1970s to 37,715 now, according to an estimate from the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute.
The data was released earlier this month as part of a state legislative report on the personnel crisis in the fire service, warning that “taxpayers will face a very steep price tag” if volunteer services continue to atrophy.
Already, Carlisle, and most other municipalities in the midstate, supplement their fire services with a property tax add-on that helps to finance fire equipment and paid driver shifts, ensuring that someone will always be there to drive the truck during peak hours.
But local fire services are still dependent on fundraisers and volunteer firefighters to operate, even if sometimes all that can be mustered is a single volunteer to jump on the truck.
The volunteer pool is also rapidly aging, local chiefs said, and it’s not easy for the few young firefighters who have joined.
“It’s almost taboo for people my age to be a firefighter,” said Matt Kness, a Dickinson College student who volunteers with CFRS.
Kness’ schedule is hectic. He rises at 6:30 a.m. for his morning workout with the lacrosse team, then he may go to the firehouse for an hour or two in the morning before classes start. Afternoon lacrosse practice follows, and then Kness goes back to the fire company.
“I actually get most of my school work done here in between calls,” Kness said.
Having been a volunteer firefighter in New York, where he grew up, Kness didn’t want to get rusty while he’s away at college. He’s tried to get his college teammates to join, to no avail.
“There are 55 guys on the lacrosse team who would all be perfect to join, but not one has,” Kness said. “They think it’s cool, but I don’t think they really understand it.”
At Union, volunteer firefighter Austin Gsell is a senior at Cumberland Valley High School. But today’s career pressures leave time for little else, Gsell said.
“Most of (my friends) are like ‘if I’m not going to get paid for it, I don’t want to put the time into it,’” Gsell said.
Incentives and duties
The state’s fire report stresses additional tax credits, tuition breaks and even stipends to paid firefighters in order to get young people in the door. But these methods are not guaranteed successes.
Cumberland Valley High School partnered with HACC last school year for a firefighting course, Gsell said, but only three students, including himself, finished the class. Only one of the other students ended up joining a fire company.
“They got one out of it, but not that many young people want to do it,” Gsell said. “They were hoping it would take off and they’d get a bunch of people to sign up, but I don’t think they’re offering the class again.”
On the opposite end of the age spectrum, CFRS volunteer Joe Manning began as a volunteer firefighter three years ago, after retiring from 33 years in the military.
“It’s manageable if you want it to be,” Manning said. Being retired gives him the ability to take shifts during daytime hours when other members are at work. But he also has to commit to regular workouts to keep up with the younger members.
“If I’m going to carry my weight, I have to stay in shape,” Manning said. “Most people my age aren’t going to do this, but these guys make it fun for me.”
Most volunteer firefighters also carry out the secondary duty of fundraising — running the company’s raffles and bingo nights, and attending community events with the hope of gaining donations and possible recruits.
“We’re out there handing out plastic fire hats to the kids, but we’re really looking toward the parents. It’s hard for people who have kids and both work, but the time requirement is what you want it to be,” Manning said.
“That’s where the volunteer fire service is awesome. You can do 10 hours a week or you can do 100 hours a week,” Eastham said.
Shifts and training
Firehouses often struggle during the daytime hours, when most members are at work. Eastham works a regular job as a business executive, but will spend long stretches at CFRS in between business trips, he said. Kodish, at Union, also works a regular job, but is part of the live-in program at Union, meaning he usually spends the night at the firehouse. He can also step out of work during the day for a major incident, but the number of workers who are able to do so is less than what it once was.
“I know my supervisor would not have a problem with it, but I’m not sure how many of us can do that,” Kodish said.
The amount of training required for volunteer fire positions is a blessing and a curse.
In Carlisle, the borough requires volunteer firefighters to have the National Fire Protection Association’s Firefighter I certification, the same level of training required for entry-level paid firefighters in most jurisdictions throughout the nation.
The training required can be completed in several modules, each taking at least a 16-hour weekend, and some taking several. Total time is around 180 hours.
While it’s a lot for a volunteer position, the training allows Carlisle’s firefighters to find paid work if they want it, often in the Washington, D.C., or Baltimore metro areas. It also allows them to work alongside professional companies, such as the full-time paid fire company maintained by the military for the U.S. Army War College and Carlisle Barracks.
“You’re getting into the minimum level of training from a career standpoint,” Eastham said. “That standard puts us on the same page while we’re on a call with volunteer and career personnel.”
“It’s ongoing,” Manning said. “Once you get into this line of work, you can’t train enough.”
The state’s fire report suggests expanding the office of the state’s fire commissioner to offer a more centralized method of funding training and personnel records maintenance, something local companies often struggle with.
But what the state hasn’t found so far is a dedicated stream of funding, given that the roughly $100 million the state provides in local fire assistance is a small fraction of the $6 billion to $10 billion estimated value of volunteer fire and ambulance services.
Information from: The Sentinel, http://www.cumberlink.com