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There's a volunteer firefighter shortage. Is more money the answer?

Centre Region Council of Governments is slowly increasing the annual stipend for eligible Alpha Fire Company volunteers as an incentive to keep membership up.
Centre Region Council of Governments is slowly increasing the annual stipend for eligible Alpha Fire Company volunteers as an incentive to keep membership up. Centre Daily Times, file

Recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters is a "pervasive problem" across the state. That's why Alpha Fire Company has created an incentive to keep them coming back.

Centre Region Council of Governments Fire Director Steve Bair in the fall proposed a large increase to the stipend for Alpha's volunteers so that they don't have to take a part-time job to make ends meet. The stipend paid to volunteers will likely increase over a few years to make it an easier adjustment for taxpayers, he said.

"We’re trying to be much more proactive here and keep people engaged and interested so that we don’t find ourselves having actually to go out and hire people," Bair said.

This year's CRCOG budget included a $850 stipend for Alpha's eligible volunteers, which is up from $560 in 2017. By 2020 or 2021, Bair said he would like the annual stipend for each volunteer to be around $5,000, which is comparable to working a 10-12 hour part-time job in the area. CRCOG officials will spend the rest of 2018 determining what next year's stipend will be.

The University Park Airport conducted an emergency exercise involving a mock plane crash and pretend victims May 23, 2018. The training is required by the FAA every three years, and involves fire companies and EMS from across the county.

"Even if we went to the full stipend this year, we would still be cheaper fire protection than most townships of similar nature in Pennsylvania by quite a few dollars actually," he said.

Bair looks at the budgets of about 30-50 other communities to see what they're contributing to their volunteer fire companies versus what CRCOG's municipalities are contributing to Alpha. In 2017, the average per capita cost for those fire companies was $40.80, and CRCOG's was $22.91, not including the student volunteers.

Alpha currently has about 100 volunteers, but Bair said what they need is closer to 125. The fire company hit a significant low in the early 2000s when there were less than 100 volunteers, and peaked in 2009 when membership was up to 115.

Fire companies have been going out of business and suspending responses because they just don't have enough people who are "worried about tomorrow," Bair said.

“I’m always worried about it," he said. "I’m not losing tremendous sleep over it, but it’s the kind of thing you need to plan for before it comes to your doorstep."

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