It's getting more expensive and demanding to keep you safe. What do fire companies need most?

Birthday fun helps local fire company

The Boalsburg Fire Company hosts birthday parties for donations to help with their expenses. The parties are education and fun and a way to connect with the community.
Up Next
The Boalsburg Fire Company hosts birthday parties for donations to help with their expenses. The parties are education and fun and a way to connect with the community.

Volunteer firefighters make a great deal of personal sacrifices to keep their communities safe. It takes time, money and commitment to sustain fire companies, but they can't survive without community support.

"The community needs to realize that fire departments are there for you, but sometimes you need to be there for the fire department," Boalsburg Volunteer Fire Company Chief Van Winter said.

Centre County fire companies are funded through municipal taxes and state grants, Winter said, but they depend on community fundraisers to keep the doors open.

In Snow Shoe that's harder now because the fire company's social club recently closed due to mounting bills and not enough income, according to Don Morgan, a trustee of the fire company.

Snow Shoe Fireman’s Club
The Snow Shoe Fire Company Social Club, which has been open for decades and helped support the local fire company, closed in early April. An effort to reopen the club has been met with opposition. Phoebe Sheehan Centre Daily Times, file

Years ago, he said the club brought in enough funds to cover all of the fire company's utility bills.

"Times have changed. You don't have the number of people going to clubs anymore like you used to up here," Morgan said.

He thinks part of that is because a lot of people have to leave the Mountaintop area for work and don't have the time to come to the bar anymore. But as for the fire company itself, he says it's not going anywhere.

"There will always be a fire company here," Morgan said. "It started in 1906, and it's had its ups and downs, but it's still going to be there."

In Boalsburg, Winter said about 40 percent of the fire company's money comes from community fundraisers like carnivals, filling swimming pools, hoagie sales and assisting with prescribed burns. In the past year, Winter said the company has even hosted more than 70 kids' birthday parties, including one on Saturday.

But all those fundraisers take up a lot of time and energy. Winter said almost all of Boalsburg's 45 volunteers have full-time jobs. Between the amount of training that volunteers are required to go through, their jobs and their family, Winter said many people get burned out.

"You’re asking for a large commitment out of a person’s life that maybe they don’t want to make. ... Maybe it’s not what they thought it was," he said.

Volunteers do get a small stipend, but it "doesn't even come close" to paying Winter's fuel bill for his truck.

Maintaining volunteer fire companies isn't cheap. One set of fire gear costs about $3,000, pagers are about $350 each and air packs come in around $6,000, Winter said. One fire apparatus can run anywhere from $600,000 to $1 million, he said.

In Winter's 35 years at the fire company, he has seen how fire technology has evolved. In the '80s, he said fire trucks were very simple and they could usually maintain the vehicles themselves. Nowadays, he says the "cost of that technology to the fire service is detrimental."

One way Winter thinks could help alleviate the pressure on fire companies is if municipalities provided more funding so that the members don't have to choose between fundraisers and their families or jobs.

"That’s a hard thing to get municipalities to understand," he said. "You’re wearing your members out by doing all these fundraisers, when they could be training or getting some free time away from the station."

Winter said he always stresses how time consuming being a volunteer is to prospective members.

"We appreciate you showing up and wanting to participate in this, but there’s more important things in life. Your family and your work is important — we can fall somewhere after that," Winter said.

Boalsburg requires volunteers to take the "Essentials of Firefighting" course, which is about 200 hours of training.

Most volunteer fire companies are understaffed as it is, but that's especially true during the daytime when most volunteers are working, he said. He said they're at the mercy of "if you're available to show up, please show up."

Luckily, fire departments are a "strong brotherhood." Winter said there's a lot of collaboration between companies because "no one can do every call themselves" or has all the necessary resources.

Companies will often share equipment. For example, Boalsburg doesn't have a ladder truck, so it relies on Alpha or another company to help out.

Though staffing and resources can fluctuate, Winter said "fire departments will endure and will persevere."

Centre County Emergency Responder Scholarship

Centre County, in partnership with the Centre Foundation, is sponsoring six scholarships to encourage more people to volunteer as emergency responders.

Those who qualify will be eligible for scholarships of up to $2,500 per academic year, which must be used at either the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology or South Hills School of Business and Technology, according to the Centre Foundation website.

Applicants must reside in Centre County, be a member of a volunteer emergency responder company (fire, EMS, etc.) for at least three months before the start of the academic year and be 17 years or older.

For a full list of requirements, visit centre-foundation.org. To apply, go to https://centre-foundation.academicworks.com/users/sign_in.