Each and every day, volunteer emergency responders come to the rescue when disaster strikes, but what would you do if one day nobody came? With increasing personal responsibilities and decreasing funding for volunteer fire departments, if no further changes are made, this could indeed become reality.
“It’s a terrible thing to even imagine, but if Pennsylvania doesn’t make changes to help retain, respect and recruit emergency responders, it’s a reality some communities in our Commonwealth may have to accept,” said Pennsylvania State Rep. Bryan Cutler in a press release.
In Pennsylvania, where Benjamin Franklin started the nation’s first volunteer fire company in 1736, the number of volunteer firefighters has declined from 300,000 in the 1970s to 38,000 in 2018, according to the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute.
With the older generation of volunteers aging out, it’s been difficult to find and retain new volunteers. Trainings and volunteer hours take time away from work and often include travel, which isn’t always easy while juggling a family and a full-time job — or for many — multiple jobs.
“Priorities are different than they used to be even 15-20 years ago when I joined,” said James Kelley, fire chief of the Derrick City Volunteer Fire Department. “People work multiple jobs with different work hours and their children are in multiple sports and activities. The number of hours for training is more now and members cannot commit to spending extra nights at the fire station.”
While Derrick City VFD is able to provide necessary equipment and most trainings at no cost to the volunteer, Cutler explained that isn’t the case across the board. Many departments across Pennsylvania require volunteers to raise money, pay for their own training and purchase their own equipment.
Kelley said the Derrick City VFD receives a state allotment from the Pennsylvania Volunteer Relief Association and the PA Fire Commissioner’s State Grant, though the majority of funding comes from various fundraisers such as weekly bingo, ham and turkey parties, helmet drives, chicken barbecues and 5k races as well as the Foster Township yearly donation drive.
“In 2015 and 2016, we received funding from FEMA for new SCBAs and a Cascade system which equated to about $150,000 however, in the past two years, we were turned down for the FEMA grant,” noted Kelley.
Funding is currently allocated based on population density, though Byran Phelps, fire chief of the Coudersport Volunteer Fire Department, believes a better system is needed. He explained how some municipalities receive so much excess money, they buy extra equipment at the end of the year just to spend it, whereas others struggle to pay utility bills.
“Funding is always the biggest issue. You don’t see the DWP doing chicken barbecues and selling tickets to get a dump truck. We’re tasked to provide safety saving services and it’s not fair for us to do these fundraisers to survive,” explained Phelps.
A commission of fire chiefs, policymakers and elected leaders spent months last year discussing the challenges facing first responders, providing nearly 30 recommendations.
“This month, the House will vote on bills to modernize training, reform incentives for both volunteers and their full-time employers, open new pathways for fire companies to recruit future members and help every firefighter and emergency responder in Pennsylvania,” said Cutler.
Rep. Steve Barrar, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness (VAEP) Committee, will unveil the ‘Helpers and Heroes’ plan at 11 a.m. on Oct. 21 in Harrisburg, with a LIVE webstream at http://www.SteveBarrar.com.
During this event, Barrar will review the package of bills slated to go before the House next week, joined by firefighters and EMS personnel, VAEP Committee members, SR6 Commission members and rural residents.
Phelps will be traveling to Harrisburg to provide input and ideas.
“The need for the fire department is going to remain, so if we don’t fund it, it’s not just loss of life or property. It could be horrific,” he expressed. “Some of them aren’t even involved in the services; we have to educate them and let them know our needs. I feel fortunate to go down and speak my voice and make a change.”