They love the job and their ‘firehouse family.’ What makes volunteer firefighters stay?

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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.

Samantha Gribble always knew she wanted to be a firefighter, ever since she was a little kid.

In her Howard home, she watched on repeat “Ladder 49,” the 2004 film starring Joaquin Phoenix as a Baltimore firefighter trapped in a burning building. She loved the story about risking everything to save lives, plus the camaraderie of a city fire department.

Now at age 18, Gribble is among the shrinking number of Pennsylvanians who make up the state’s cash-strapped volunteer fire companies. Only two others in the Howard Fire Company responded to more calls than she did last year, company President Mark Ott said.

She’s among the youngest members there, working alongside people her parents’ age and older as Ott draws hope from her example. Pennsylvania counted about 38,000 volunteer firefighters last year, down from roughly 300,000 in the 1970s, according to the state Fire and Emergency Services Institute.

Samantha Gribble, 18, is a volunteer at the Howard Fire Department. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

“If I can’t go on a call because I’m busy, it bums me out because I just like to go on calls,” Gribble said, calling the work both a duty and an adrenaline rush.

The youngest of seven siblings, she already outlasted two older brothers who had joined the fire company. They didn’t stick around for long, leaving behind the close-knit subculture that firefighters cast as a second family.

“There’s not as much interest in volunteering these days,” Ott said. Officials there just “don’t know how” to get many young people involved.

The lure of an ‘addicting hobby’

Howard Fire Company counts a small group of young volunteers, which includes Gribble and several men.

“To me, I’d love to see 30 of (Sam),” Ott said. “And Nick, Nick Fisher. Another guy, very young.”

Fisher, 21, works at Planet Fitness during the days, but is an active member of the fire company as both a firefighter and emergency medical responder, Ott said. Fisher joined the company as a junior firefighter when he was 14.

“I joined more in the sense to just try something, and it just turned into like, a love of mine ... an addicting hobby, you can call it,” Fisher said. He responded to the most calls last year among everyone in the company.

Ties to firefighting also can foster bonds at school, Gribble said.

Samantha Gribble, Nick Fisher and Tyler Litz laugh together on Jan. 24 after they all checked their phones for a medical assist call that came in at during a work night at the Howard Fire Department . Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

“There was a lot of kids in my grade that actually volunteered at different fire companies like Milesburg or Snow Shoe,” she said. “So it was like, if you like met the right people, there was like a community of firefighters in high school.”

Volunteer firefighting isn’t for everyone, but for Fisher, the feeling of saving a life or property is like “an adrenaline rush before getting on a roller coaster you’ve never been on before,” he said.

Like Gribble, he said he was drawn to camaraderie among firefighters.

“When a firefighter tells you that they have two families, they have their actual family and they have their firehouse family,” he said. Firefighters forge a bond and “go through some of the most stressful situations with each other.”

They also live with the threat of injury on nearly every call. In early January, Tyler Thomas, 19, who runs with Hope Fire Company and lives in Morrisdale, was injured by falling rubble while fighting a building fire from the inside. He was released from the hospital the next day and faces several months of recovery.

“If it’s like a working fire or something, you don’t even stop to think for a second that you’re running into something that could be a threat to yourself,” Fisher said.

Ott, who’s been in the Howard department 10 years, said it’s rare to see an 18- or 19-year-old who stays in the department more than three years.

“A lot of the younger people like Samantha start at this age. I’d be surprised if she’s still in the area two to three years from now,” he said. “So we get a lot of younger people her age, and then about (age) 22 or 23 they disappear ... and that’s unfortunate because that’s the age we need them.”

A matter of burnout

Dipping strawberries in melted chocolate isn’t what would-be firefighters might expect from the job, but it’s how members of the Philipsburg fire department spent a few hours Feb. 12, in preparation for an annual fundraiser.

Matt Rebmann, Casey Cartwright and Maccee Rebmann make chocolate covered strawberries on Feb. 12 for the Hope Fire Company Valentine’s Day fundraiser. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

“You do get a new member occasionally, when they quit coming around, their reply is ‘I didn’t come to cook spaghetti dinners, I came to be a firefighter,’ ” said Tim Sharpless, chief of the Mountain Top Fire Company. “(Fundraising is) probably 70 percent of our time.”

Assistant Fire Chief Justin Butterworth has lost many young volunteers over the ratio of fundraising to firefighting, he said.

“People came in not realizing all the other stuff that the members are asked to do, aside from responding to emergency calls. ... They weren’t aware that they were going to spend so much time training; they weren’t aware they were going to have to raise so much funds,” Butterworth said. “For every hour we’re on a call, we’re spending several hours either working fundraisers (or) organizing fundraisers (and) preparing for them.”

And more time spent fundraising and training leads to member burnout and a shrinking pool of interested, available volunteers.

“It’s a lot of time away from the family. The more we have to ask them to do, the more time that is and then they’re less likely to stay active,” Ott said.

Recruitment proves a challenge, too, when there’s so little manpower to begin with. Gribble said the fire company uses fundraisers as a chance to connect with the community and encourage more participation.

People probably aren’t aware that the fire company has an open-door policy Thursday nights for people interested in volunteering or who just want to hang out, she said.

“Just try it, and you might like it … you might like that you’re helping people or just — you know — helping the community or your local fire company,” Gribble said.

Caleb Kelley and Rich Kelley work together to load hoses on the engine at Howard Fire Department during a work night on Jan. 24. Rich Kelley talked of how proud he was that his son Caleb, now 20, joined the company when he was 14. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Still, Ott worries about the future of the company. In the last year, of Howard’s roster of about 41 active members, only 10 or 12 responded to 50 or more calls. On any given day, Ott said, the same four people usually respond to a medical call: fire Chief Collin Alterio, Gribble, Fisher and himself.

“It’s a full-time job for me. I’m definitely doing 40 hours a week or more. Some weeks nothing, but other weeks double,” Ott said. “So you have to have a few people that are willing to do that ...

“I’ll probably never get out of this job until I die unless somebody is willing to step in and do what I’m doing,” he said.

At the outdated Hope Fire Company building in Philipsburg, with peeling paint and scratched floors, Butterworth is desperate for young people to train from the bottom up.

But college, trade school and more lucrative jobs often take them away from the area, and they never move back, Butterworth said.

Over the last five years, the Philipsburg fire department lost about 80 percent of its 25 junior members.

‘A good bunch of people’

On a windswept afternoon in early January, the Miles Township Fire Company in Rebersburg scrambled to a large duplex fire in Haines Township.

Of more than 20 firefighters who responded, many are Amish.

“I would say half or more (of our volunteers) are Amish volunteers,” said fire captain Ronald Rishel, Jr. “They don’t get enough credit.”

A wall of firefighter equipment in the Miles Township Fire Department on Jan. 10. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

The township’s large Amish population contributes to the unique character of its fire department. The company doesn’t struggle with manpower issues like the majority of other departments, Rishel said, because many of the Amish volunteer firefighters work on farms or in small shops nearby and can respond to a call quickly.

“It makes a big difference (the Amish). Without having them here, we wouldn’t have them to begin with,” said fire police officer Jon Wolfe.

Sometimes, when a call goes out during the middle of the day, several Amish firefighters will suit up and get in a truck, Wolfe and Rishel said — but they have to wait for a driver, since their religion does not allow them to drive.

Ron Rishel Jr. leans on one of the fire trucks as he talks with fellow volunteers at the Miles Township Fire Department after they responded to a call in Haines Township on Jan. 10. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

With a little over 2,000 people in the township, there aren’t many young people to recruit, Rishel said. He and Wolfe remembered when several Amish volunteers walked out of a wedding to handle an important call.

“Look at what we’ve all walked out on: Christmas dinner, Easter dinner ... ,” Wolfe said. “Going back, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Rishel smiled.

“When you’re married and have children, it changes your priorities a bit,” he said, adding: “Yeah, we got a good bunch of people here.”

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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.