When the fire alarm rings, who will answer the bell?
It almost seems silly to ask when Delaware County is dotted with fire stations. Collingdale, Sharon Hill and Clifton Heights, for example, are all located within two miles of each other.
But the question is serious. The current number of 72,000 volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania is far less than the mid-1970s high of 300,000. State Rep. Steve Barrar (R-160), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, believes reasons for the decline include more stringent training requirements, consolidations of fire companies and a simple but key factor – people are working multiple jobs and don’t have the time they once did to volunteer.
“In many areas around the state you are going to see fire companies shutting their doors, which is not a good thing,” said Barrar. “It’s hard for some to make the time commitment.”
Added Chris McGough, assistant chief of the Middletown Fire Company: “It’s obviously a serious issue. Numbers have been declining for years. There just isn’t the number of people volunteering like there used to be. The call volume is also continuing to increase. You are seeing a drop in the number of people volunteering and a rise in the need for service.
Barrar explained some firefighters respond to up to 400 calls a year; many coming in the middle of the night, on holidays, and during their children’s birthday parties.
“That’s a heck of a lot of time to ask for them to give,” Barrar noted.
In Pennsylvania, fire departments are manned nearly 97 percent by volunteers, and the state’s 1,500 volunteer fire departments produce a tax savings of about $6 billion a year for state and local governments, according to a report by the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee.
Of 1,500 PA fire companies, 97 percent are
manned by volunteers.
In Delco, calls are dispatched via a paging system from the Delaware County 911 Center. Delaware County Emergency Services uses 87 fire stations for dispatch (69 community-based fire stations, five industrial fire stations such as Boeing, and 13 hospital-based medical stations.)
Every firefighter is issued a pager for his or her individual fire company and many volunteers have a wide range of jobs outside the fire station. Not everyone works nine-to-five.
“It (the paging system) helps alleviate some of these issues but it certainty doesn’t solve the problem that there aren’t as many volunteers,” said McGough. Middletown Fire Company currently has 62 members (36 are active, which means they respond to at least 10 percent of incoming calls every year. The numbers of those making more than 20 percent of incoming calls is in the low 20s.).
According to Delaware County’s director of Emergency Services, Tim Boyce, there are approximately 1,600 building fire calls a year, a fairly steady number for the past three years. Of those, about 100 are serious fires and of those 100, about 40 percent become extra alarm fires. Multiple individual fire companies respond to the same event and each count their response as unique. The majority of fire dispatch calls, however, are for non-building responses like accidents, fire alarms and downed wires.
“(You had) a full truck (respond to a call) back in the day, three trucks right after first dispatch. Now you get a call in the middle of the day, people are at work and you hit the second or third dispatch,” said Yeadon firefighter CJ Jeffries. “If you have more people, it takes a lot off of the four people on the truck. If you have eight guys on the truck, each person has one job. If you have four, then people are spread thin.”
Boyce began his career as a volunteer firefighter in 1982. In 1989, he was named deputy chief of the Upper Darby Fire Department. Today, he oversees operation of the Public Safety Answering Point PSAP 911 Center and Special Operations Command.
“The total number of calls most organizations respond to, during my career as a firefighter, went up four-to-five fold. We’ve asked our volunteers to become more skilled and professional. They answered that call,” said Boyce, who started his current position in November 2016.
“A decline in the number of volunteer firefighters is a concern to all of us in emergency services. We want to be able to reach people in need as quickly as possible with a sufficient resource of people to mitigate the circumstances. Time is very important. Having people there early makes a big difference. Any time we reduce the total number of people we have available to respond, we are playing catch-up from the beginning of an emergency.”
Many believe the biggest change to volunteer fire service is the amount of training required. Gone are the days when one can just show up at a firehouse, take a few weekend courses, hop on a truck, ring a bell and activate the siren.
State and federal governments have put stringent training requirements on firefighters due to liability concerns.
The course for entry level firefighter offered at Delaware County Emergency Services Training Center in Sharon Hill requires a Tuesday and Thursday evening class (3½ hours each) and a Saturday class (nine hours) for 15 weeks.
Barrar is involved with various measures on the legislative end to help reduce the decline in volunteer first responders.
In October 2016, Gov. Tom Wolf signed House Bill 1683, which Barrar co-sponsored, into law. It allows municipalities to offer active volunteer fire and EMS personnel tax credits for earned income tax and/or property taxes.
Barrar says opting to have paid fire companies will cause communities a huge tax increase because the fire house will need to be staffed with three shifts, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Volunteer firefighters save PA taxpayers about $6 billion a year.
“Volunteer firefighters and EMTs save taxpayers about $6 billion a year. It’s the gift they give to the people of Pennsylvania. What we (legislators) are asking for, is to put certain items on the table that will give them some type of incentive to stay as a volunteer. If we go to all-paid fire houses throughout our county, it’s going to hit the taxpayer very hard,” predicted Barrar.
When the Pennsylvania General Assembly kicked off the legislative session in late January, Barrar joined leaders of the Senate Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee and announced a renewed effort to assist Pennsylvania’s first responders.
They announced a proposed “reboot” of Senate Resolution (SR) 60 of 2003 – a comprehensive study of fire and EMS issues completed in 2004 – and to discuss a 16-bill package of legislation to complement and build on previous efforts to help first responders address key issues such as recruitment and retention.
Facing similar concerns a decade ago, the General Assembly approved SR 60, a concurrent resolution that created a bi-partisan commission to study emergency services across the state. The 25-member commission released a report that focused on specific concerns such as recruitment and delivery of services, issues that seemed to be most common among the state’s fire departments and ambulance corps. Through that focus, the commission developed a set of recommendations intended to provide needed assistance to Pennsylvania’s emergency service providers.
“With the help of the commission, we will be working to address issues that currently threaten the sustainability of both fire and emergency medical services,” said Barrar.
The support measures unveiled by Barrar include bills promoting recruitment and retention, such as offering online training to make the process more convenient, providing loan forgiveness to attract volunteers, and developing a pilot program to offer firefighter training in secondary schools. Other measures would provide tax credits to businesses that excuse their employees when they need to respond to emergencies or undergo training and provide new billing options for fire departments and EMS organizations.
“We do get a great deal of support from our (legislators) so I can’t discredit the works they do or the ideas they have,” said McGough. “They do try to reach out and help us. Things like incentive programs would go a long way toward attracting people to wanting to volunteer. Obviously, a lot of us are here because we want to help others and do service for our community. It would be helpful if there were a little more to (incentivize) the people who aren’t already involved to pique their attention.”
A family tradition. A desire to help .
For many, firefighting is a family business. CJ Jeffries started volunteering at Yeadon Fire Company five years ago when he 15 years-old. Firefighting runs deep in his family. He remembers spending almost every day at the firehouse as a child.
“The desire to do it was always there. I really enjoy it,” said Jeffries.
Despite his youthful appearance and actual age, during an early afternoon interview in May, he repeated, “The times are changing,” in terms of attracting volunteers.
Jefferies remembers when Yeadon had so many volunteer firefighters they couldn’t fit all the gear racks on the wall.
Volunteer firefighting is family tradition but
“Times are changing.”
“The times are changing,” said Jeffries. “People know, ‘I can die. Why would I want to do something like that for free?’ You have to rely on family generations,” Jeffries said. He estimates half of Yeadon’s firefighters come from firefighter families.
Like Boyce, Barrar and a number of others, Jeffries agrees that training requirements have gotten more stringent and require a major time commitment.
He offers a different take on recruitment, touting social media as a tool. YouTube videos of firefighters using helmet cameras are also a way to garner interest.
“It’s how you get to the younger kids, like myself,” said Jefferies who noted that Yeadon Fire Company is on Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram.
Despite the waning number of volunteers, those across the spectrum — from a long-time vet like Boyce to the baby-faced Jeffries — expressed a desire to help their neighbors and the rewarding aspect of the field.
“Paid firemen are paid to be on duty, they aren’t paid to be heroic,” said Boyce. “Our volunteers, when they are in that mode of helping people, it’s very rewarding.”