Vanishing volunteers, rising costs: Evolving pressures put squeeze on Pa. fire departments

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Sounding the alarm: Fire departments in crisis

Volunteer fire departments across the country have fewer members than ever before. While still vital to our communities, the culture of fire departments has changed in Centre County. The departments are also tasked with rising costs and increased demands on their members. “Sounding the alarm,” a multipart series from the Centre Daily Times, explores the unprecedented challenges facing these departments.

Imagine your neighbor’s house catches fire one bitterly cold night. You live in a rural, wooded area about 10 miles from the nearest fire company.

An emergency dispatcher says help is on the way.

Nine fire companies from across Centre and Mifflin counties quickly arrive. Despite the wide response, the below-zero temperatures and hilly terrain create obstacles to crews trying to draw water get hoses up to the house. One of the closest departments sends firefighters on an engine that’s almost 30 years old. When they try to draw water from the creek a half-mile from your neighbor, the rig’s pump fails.

This wasn’t just a worst-case scenario but reality last month for the Gregg Township Fire Company, which joined other departments to battle flames shooting from a Potter Township home on Mountain Spring Lane. The house was a total loss.

The struggles faced by the Gregg Township crew underscore the financial and staffing pressures making it tougher for volunteer fire departments across Pennsylvania to safeguard their communities.

Fewer people are volunteering with the companies every year, especially in rural areas where tax revenues may not be enough to support a paid firefighting force.

In the Howard Fire Company, for example, President Mark Ott said there’s been a 50 percent decrease in engaged volunteers — those who show up regularly at weekly work nights to do maintenance on the company’s equipment — since the 1990s.

“It used to be when I first started there were people that were arguing over who gets to drive (the truck), now we’re having trouble finding enough people to drive,” he said.

Meanwhile, as training and equipment costs have escalated, money from municipal governments has been level or fallen short of fire companies’ needs, Ott said.

Fire gear hangs at Howard Fire Department. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Even the Pennsylvania state Legislature is paying attention. It passed Senate Resolution 6 in 2017, which established a bipartisan, bicameral commission to recommend and oversee improvements to the structure and delivery of emergency services in the Commonwealth. The commission issued its report in November 2018.

Declines in volunteers have been decades in the making, according to numbers from the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute. The state counted some 300,000 volunteer firefighters in the 1970s but only 60,000 about 30 years later. The number slipped again to 38,000 last year, institute data show.

Those diminished ranks — paired with a similar downturn facing community ambulance groups — mark an unfolding crisis for public safety, according to a state commission spurred by the General Assembly. More than 90 percent of Pennsylvania’s 2,464 fire companies are volunteer-run, the 39-member commission reported last year.

Running like a business — somewhat

For Mountain Top Fire Company Chief Tim Sharpless, the most significant change he’s seen during his 35 years is that his department has started to act like a business, with state requirements and paperwork.

If volunteer fire companies are acting more like businesses due to state requirements and paperwork, they’re not getting paid like most private businesses. Their clients — the taxpayers and residents in the communities they protect — often aren’t bearing the full, direct cost of fire protection.

In Philipsburg, Hope Fire Company gets a percentage of funding from each municipality it serves — Philipsburg Borough and Rush Township in Centre County and Decatur and Boggs townships in Clearfield County — but it’s nowhere near enough, Assistant Chief Justin Butterworth said.

“(The municipalities) all provide us financial compensation, but it is not sufficient to operate any sort of functional fire department,” he said. “In order for us to keep the lights on, pay the water bill, pay the utilities, the basic standard needs, the money from the municipalities isn’t even enough to cover that, much less buy a $60,000 engine.”

Grants, plus fundraisers put on by the fire company, provide roughly 75 percent to 80 percent of Hope’s money, Butterworth estimated.

Though the state does not require any training for volunteer firefighters, training is required to qualify for many grants and programs the state offers. National volunteer firefighter training standards have been in place since the 1970s.

Carly Wojtaszek uses a fire extinguisher during a firefighting training class on Jan. 17 at the Centre County Public Safety Training Center. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Firefighter I training, established through the National Fire Protection Association, covers basic fire safety and behavior, like how to operate and identify equipment, conduct a search-and-rescue and connect a pumper or tanker to a water supply. Firefighter II training covers how to assume command and do more specialized labor, like force entry to a building, extinguish a fire with a fire extinguisher and protect evidence in case of arson.

Steve Bair, the Centre Region Council of Governments Fire Director, who started his fire career in Harrisburg in 1975, said he did not get certified to Firefighter I level until the 1980s. To train to the level of Firefighter II, he had to go to Delaware because Pennsylvania did not offer the training. Now, Pennsylvania offers both Firefighter I and Firefighter II training through the Office of the State Fire Commissioner.

“The ‘70s and ‘80s were not kind to firefighters, with many line-of-duty deaths and many serious injuries,” Bair said. “This led to a strong push to improve (and increase) training and the certification system became established.”

Over the years, the national standard for certification has climbed from about 50 hours to just more than 200 hours today — an expectation that can keep away some would-be volunteers.

In order to be selected for a Federal Emergency Management Agency Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG), a department has to provide certification data on all volunteers, said Bair. For the state assistance grant awarded annually, departments can increase their awards by a few thousand dollars by showing at least 10 firefighters are certified to Firefighter I, he said.

Looking for money in a limited pool

In Howard, a small town nestled in the Bald Eagle Valley, the fire company was so overwhelmed with paperwork and grant applications that it had to hire a grant writer in 2014, said Ott, the company president. It pays the writer around $1,000 per application.

Mark Ott, president of the Howard Fire Department, talks about the issues facing the department on Jan. 16. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Without grants the writer has helped secure, Ott said, the company would not have been able to buy new gear for firefighters or its newest tanker. A FEMA grant worth $192,000 covered nearly half the tanker’s cost.

Ott wishes the company could line up more money from the municipalities it serves — Howard Borough and Howard, Curtin and Marion townships — but they just don’t have the tax base that places like State College do, he said.

“Curtin Township — they say they have 84 tax-paying households in the township. How much money can they give us?” Ott said. “Most of those people are living in trailers in pretty squalid conditions out there, to be frank. They don’t have the money. You know, how can we go out there and say, ‘We really need money from you?’”

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Matt Hymowitz CDT graphic

Those economic conditions make fundraising difficult, as well. Many fire companies in Centre County are rooted in enthusiastic communities that donate every year. But when the money just isn’t there, there isn’t much that fire officials can do, Butterworth said.

He pointed to a fundraising pitch that Hope Fire Company mails to about 4,800 residences and businesses each year. Some 7 percent of recipients contribute, Butterworth said.

“Those donations range from $5 to $500,” he said. “The nature of the community that we live in, there’s a lot of older residents, there’s a lot of people on fixed incomes, there’s a lot of people that are living off of Social Security and disability and such.”

It’s simply “not feasible for everybody to write a check like, you know, a lot of the better-off communities such as the State College area,” Butterworth said.

Losing volunteers — and fast

Most volunteer firefighters with at least a decade’s experience have seen stark change in their companies, the most noticeable being a diminished pool of volunteers.

Butterworth joined Hope Fire Company 16 years ago, in 2003, before the economic recession of 2008. In those early years, there would always be 10 to 15 people at the station, just hanging out for hours.

“And now, it’s hardly ever like that ... just the amount of people coming in the door I’ve noticed is significantly less,” he said. “The amount of people that have the time to be here on a regular basis is significantly less, and that’s all because of the way the economy went and people needed to pick up extra jobs.”

Justin Butterworth shovels the snow in front of the Hope Fire Company Recreation Center on Feb. 12. Volunteers from the company recently put in their time to renovate the center in hopes that it will bring more people to rent the space to help them raise funds. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

While urban areas have largely recovered from the severe economic downturn of 2008 and 2009, rural areas have had a much slower recovery. The rural unemployment rate peaked at 10.2 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Centre County, the unemployment rate reached 6.4 percent after the recession’s height in 2010. The figure has dipped to 3.4 percent since then, but the poverty rate increased from 14.8 percent in 2008 to 19.4 percent in 2012. It was hovering around 17 percent in 2016.

“People’s lives are so much busier now. Everybody’s kids play sports. ... A lot of people are working two jobs to make ends meet,” said Gregg Township Fire Chief Scott Breon.

Social changes have had an effect

Bair, of CRCOG, said many social changes have led to a decrease in volunteers. He is also a fire chief with Alpha Fire Company in State College.

Thirty years ago, “your community was defined by your geography,” he said. Now young people are “savvy about the broader world much sooner” and don’t need to join organizations like the local fire company to gain a local sense of belonging, he said.

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Alpha requires a volunteer member to go through 40 to 50 hours of training over nine or 10 weeks. The company gives members 18 months to clock the 204 hours of classroom time required for national certification, Bair said.

The volume of mandatory training has helped nudge some volunteers from Hope Fire Company, Butterworth said.

“There’s people that are interested in joining to the fire company to help their community, you know, serve the community, the excitement or the rush of responding to the emergencies ... but they don’t understand that with that comes hundreds of hours of training,” he said.

The back wall of the Hope Fire Department, part of the Philipsburg Fire Company, houses all the gear for its volunteers. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Because not all volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania are nationally certified, Bair said, departments and the people they serve can face safety problems. Whether volunteers have training is left to the discretion of fire chiefs in any one of Pennsylvania’s roughly 2,400 fire departments. Theoretically, a volunteer firefighter in Pennsylvania could enter a burning building without training.

Even though that’s not the case in many Centre County volunteer fire companies, fewer trained volunteers means fewer people who show up and are actually able to fight a fire.

But training itself also creates problems, said Sharpless, because volunteer firefighters working full-time jobs elsewhere don’t want to go through the training on top of a 40-plus-hour work week.

The state can’t mandate training “because then everyone would quit,” Sharpless said. But they do require departments to be nationally certified if they want to qualify for certain grants, he said.

“If you want the money, then you have to take the training,” Sharpless said. “It’s the ‘You do it — or else.’ ”

Fundraising instead of firefighting

Since the cost of running a volunteer fire company has increased so much over the past three decades, departments have leaned on community fundraisers to help compensate for what they dub a lack of state and municipal support.

But the energy put into bi-monthly hoagie sales, spaghetti dinners, chicken barbecues and other events barely makes a dent in most costs, volunteers said.

Philipsburg Assistant Chief Justin Butterworth helps package chocolate covered strawberries for the Hope Fire Company Valentine’s Day fundraiser on Feb. 12. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

“To buy a new fire engine, we (would have) had to sell like 133,000 hoagies,” Sharpless said. “It’s not even practical to think that ... but that’s the reality.”

Ott, the fire company president in Howard, said a $500 haul from a chicken barbecue “doesn’t go a long way.”

“A chicken barbecue takes 15 people hours,” he said. “You know, it’s just not worth it.”

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Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.