By Francis Scarcella
The Daily Item
SUNBURY, Pa. — When only four firefighters arrived on the scene of a working house fire in Sunbury in October, that was a wake-up call for the mostly volunteer Northumberland County department.
Before fire crews arrived, two Sunbury police offers armed with fire extinguishers tried to battle the blaze. Neither was prepared for the task, as they were equipped only with police-issued fire extinguishers.
“We need people and we need volunteers and that fire is only one example,” Sunbury Fire Chief Paul Brown said. “This could have been so much worse and if we don’t get help it will be much worse.”
The number of both volunteer and paid firefighters is down across the state — to less than 40,000, according to statewide data — and it’s causing concern among many fire companies.
Brown said he is doing all he can to get younger people involved with their local departments — in his community and elsewhere.
“We are planning on starting some programs here in Sunbury,” Brown said. “It’s a matter of how are we going to recruit.”
Michael Stender, a full-time firefighter in Harrisburg, said he believes more departments will lean toward paid professionals. He also said incentives are going to be offered to attract volunteers.
“Gift cards are now being offered and various other perks,” Stender said. “Property tax breaks for volunteers are also an option.”
Municipalities in Montour and Northumberland counties are currently considering offering earned income and property tax credits for active fire and emergency medical services volunteers.
Northumberland County Prison Warden Bruce Kovach has been a volunteer firefighter since 1979, and now runs with Americus Hose Company in Sunbury. He believes fire companies will need to become regional in the near future.
“When I first started in Nanty Glo, Cambria County, there were 200 volunteers and a waiting list to get in,” he said. “Now they are recruiting all the time.”
‘Times have changed’
Kovach said he also believes firefighters need to be paid because the culture of being a volunteer has changed.
“In order to sustain what we already have we are going to have to figure out ways to pay these people or the smaller companies will be going away,” Kovach said.
Hermitage Fire Department Chief John Flynn said interest in volunteering has been declining for 10 to 15 years. He points to multiple factors, including a decreased interest in firefighting, the need to work multiple jobs to support their families or having jobs with unusual hours.
“Back in the mill days, you might have had people that worked regular shifts, so some people would volunteer during one shift while another group of people was working their shift,” Flynn said. “Plus, people tended to volunteer more in general back then.”
Recruiting active volunteers became such a concern for the William Cameron Engine Company in Lewisburg that it became the only fire company in the Susquehanna Valley with paid full-time employees. The company — which also has its own ambulances and EMTs — first paid ambulance staff members in 1998 with the fire service following in 2005.
In 2015, Chief James Blount became the station’s first full-time chief. The company now has a combined staff of paid and volunteer firefighters.
“Times have changed and people have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet,” Blount said. “There is no easy fix for this and I think everyone is trying every method possible.”
Finding people to serve
Richland Fire Department in Cambria County turned to a hometown college for help to keep a steady stream of young firefighters in its ranks.
Since 1991, that department has offered a live-in program where full-time students with firefighting backgrounds can stay in the department dorm — instead of paying thousands of dollars every semester at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. In exchange, they must commit to serving the Richland department during the school year.
Richland’s deputy fire chief, Bob Heffelfinger, said one college student is currently enrolled in the program in 2018-19, living in their dorm-style space while conducting regular runs with the department.
As many as six students have served as live-in firefighters at any given time over the past decade, he said.
In Mercer County, the Hermitage Fire Department recruits by word-of-mouth or suggestions from current members. The only paid firefighters within the department are Chief John Flynn and Assistant Chief James Reda. About 40 volunteers serve the department.
Flynn said the time dedicated to becoming a firefighter reflects the volunteers’ desire to serve in a potentially dangerous activity.
“People may not always realize it, but these folks who volunteer are deciding to sacrifice a lot of their time and personal lives to be able to do this,” Flynn said. “And they’re risking a lot to help their community.”
He added: “It’s extremely satisfying. The people who do it know they’re making a difference and they’re helping out people in their own communities.”
In Hermitage, the volunteers are divided between the department’s main building at 2511 Highland Road, Station No. 3 at 541 Mercer Ave. and the Patagonia Volunteer Fire Department at 119 Superior St.
Although Patagonia is its own department with separate dues and charter, its location within the city places it under the umbrella of the Hermitage Fire Department.
When looking at potential recruits, Flynn said the fire department makes sure candidates are both mentally stable and physically capable of doing the work required. An interview is conducted, along with a background check to make sure firefighters don’t have criminal histories, Flynn said.
“Usually it’s the upstanding members of society that want to volunteer, and that’s who we’re looking for,” Flynn said.
Part of the selection process requires that potential volunteers live within city limits. The only exception are volunteers from Sharon, since the Sharon Fire Department is a paid department, Flynn said.
“If someone from another municipality came to us, we’d of course encourage them to volunteer with their own fire departments because it’s closer to them and we want to support our fellow volunteer fire departments,” Flynn said. “We don’t want to take volunteers away from them.”
Part of the process involves making it clear to candidates that a volunteer fire department isn’t just “a club,” but deals with life and death scenarios.
Fire departments also have a chain-of-command including chiefs, deputy chiefs, captains and lieutenants, so a volunteer has to be willing to accept authority.
Everything firefighters do is a team effort as well, so volunteers have to be able to put aside any personal issues they might have when training or entering a burning building, Flynn said.
“When that alarm goes off, everything else goes away,” he said. “It has to, because everyone is going to work together.”
Copyright 2018 The Daily Item
McClatchy-Tribune News Service