Like many businesses, volunteer fire departments are short staffed.
Unlike many businesses posting “Help Wanted” signs in their windows, this staffing shortage has plagued local departments for decades.
“Our region is at a very trying time with the volunteer fire service,” said fire Chief L.C. Otto, who heads Adah Volunteer Fire Company in Fayette County. “It takes a lot of dedication to get the training. We have enough bodies showing up. It’s just tough to get qualified guys.”
The number of volunteer firefighters nationwide has steadily declined in recent decades. When the National Volunteer Fire Council began tracking volunteer firefighters in 1983, it reported 884,600. According to its most recent data, volunteers hit an all-time low in 2017, with just 682,600 volunteers nationally.
And the numbers keep dipping.
The Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute reported a total of 38,000 volunteer firefighters in 2018, down nearly 50% from the 60,000 statewide volunteers reported in the early 2000s.
“It is a dangerous occupation, even though it’s volunteer,” said Canonsburg fire Chief Tim Solobay. “We don’t get a paycheck. You volunteered when you walked through the door. After that, it becomes a commitment.”
The commitment is more than 200 hours of initial training, monthly business and weekly training or work detail meetings. There’s also an occasional continued education course and weekend trainings. Because volunteer fire departments operate largely on donations, firefighters spend a lot of time fundraising, hosting cash bashes and manning tables at community events.
And then, of course, firefighters respond to calls.
Cokeburg volunteer fire Chief Dave Lambert said his staff of about 25 firefighters dedicates an indeterminable number of hours monthly to service.
“We train every other week for a minimum of three to four hours a night. That’s not counting our events,” said Lambert. “We average probably anywhere between eight and 11 calls a month.”
Solobay said his department responds to between 250 and 300 calls every year, a number kept lower than nearby career or combo (career plus volunteer firefighters) departments by limiting the types of calls Canonsburg’s VFD answers.
Even so, Solobay’s volunteers dedicate a lot of their free time to fire service.
“Right now, I’m over 9,000 hours that the (volunteers) have put in over the year,” said Solobay. “We’ll average between 12 and 15,000 hours a year.”
Otto’s volunteers are busy, too. His staff of 24 volunteers responds to about 150 calls annually – including all calls within Adah’s four-street municipality – and often assists nearby departments.
“We kind of go everywhere. We respond to about 40 structure fires a year, which is a lot for a very small volunteer fire department. We have one of the only ladder trucks on our side of the county,” Otto said. “Unfortunately, we’re very rural so we have to respond to a lot of the unnecessary things, like the trees down, stuff like that. If we don’t, we may not be able to exit our community. We’re kind of a one-way-in, one-way-out type of area.”
Cokeburg also takes calls for everything from tree and wires being down to accidents, medical events and fires. Lambert said he’s lucky to have a crew of younger volunteers with flexible schedules who can respond to calls around the clock.
“A few years ago, our numbers were a little bit lower. We’ve been fortunate to pick up about eight to 10 new members in the last year and a half,” said Lambert, who noted between 13 and 17 of his firefighters arrive on scene to nearly every call.
Although local departments are staffed, Otto said “you can never have enough” volunteers.
“The stats show the number of people that are willing to volunteer now, they dropped tremendously,” said Lambert. “There isn’t very many incentives for the young people to do it.”
All three fire chiefs agree modern life, with its shifting family dynamics and work responsibilities, plays a large role in the decline of volunteer firefighters.
“People’s lives have become busy,” Solobay said. “A lot of times people work out of the community that they live in. There’s travel time; it limits the availability they have to give back.”
Departments offer incentives to volunteers as thanks for their hours of work. Lambert allows each firefighter one free hall rental annually, Otto hosts cookouts and pizza parties for volunteers, and Solobay offers a benefits package.
While recruitment efforts like billboards, social media campaigns, Canonsburg’s YouTube videos and Cokeburg’s membership drives increase awareness, Otto said the best shot volunteer fire departments have at attracting more members is through legislation.
“We really need to get with our legislators and state representatives and local municipal officials to try to find a solution,” said Otto. “I think that if we could offer a pay-per-call program or offer some sort of financial incentive for college assistance, you may be able to get younger people to volunteer.”
“I don’t expect the government to hand tons of money out. If they would offer free vehicle registration if you’re an active member, or a discount on your car insurance,” that might attract interested volunteers, Lambert said.
“I am very fortunate that (my employer) gives me the ability to respond during the day. If more employers would be willing to let their employees respond during the day,” perhaps that would encourage more folks to join their VFD, he added.
Like other local fire chiefs, Otto believes there’s a solution to the volunteer firefighter shortage.
“I’d really like to see people from our region get together, get a list of goals to fix this,” he said.