Local Fire Companies Amping Up Recruitment to Deal with Shortage of Volunteer Firefighters
Dec 31, 2019 11:30AM
By Kathleen Ganster
Franklin Park Volunteer Fire Company on the job.
Leaving in the middle of a daughter’s championship soccer match to fight a fire. Waking up in the dead of night to leave a warm bed to go out into the cold to save a home. Standing on a dark, icy road to manage traffic around an accident scene. The possibility of not being able to save a child’s life in a burning home.
These are all scenes from a volunteer firefighter’s life. And did we mention that there is no pay involved?
According to the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of people signing up to become volunteer firefighters—from 300,000 in the 1970s to approximately 38,000 in 2018. And this is the state where Benjamin Franklin started the first volunteer fire company in the nation in 1736!
While there are many reasons for the decline, including increased training requirements, lack of time for volunteering and training, and the general hardships of the job, the fact that many current volunteer firefighters are aging and retiring also adds to the problem.
According to President Bob Jarvis of Franklin Park Volunteer Fire Company, they constantly recruit for more volunteers. And while they could always use more, he feels that they have managed to avoid a severe shortage so far.
“We invite the community for ‘Firefighter for a Night’ programs where we allow potential firefighters to put on a suit and go through drills,” he said. “We also attend lunch seminars at the high school and have an active social media presence.” The organization also welcomes numerous school groups and other interested parties for tours and events throughout the year.
For some Franklin Park families, volunteering with the department is a family tradition.
“We have a few families with three generations of firefighters,” Jarvis said.
The fire company, in conjunction with Franklin Park Borough, built a new home for the department in 2017 that includes a new ‘live-in’ program. The program provides housing for those who volunteer a certain number of hours a week, which is a nice option for students.
In addition to firefighters, Franklin Park also has volunteer fire police who support the firefighters, assisting with traffic control during fires and other emergency events. “They have additional training and are actually sworn into the police department,” Jarvis said.
Aspinwall also has a very active volunteer fire department, and Fire Chief Gene Marsico said that the fact that five of their members work in the Public Works Department helps. “They allow us to easily leave our jobs to go fight fires when necessary,” he explained.
Recruitment of new members is always a concern, and like Franklin Park, they actively recruit at the local high school for members of their Junior Fire Fighters program; youth 14 and above can volunteer with parental consent.
“But it is tough,” said Marsico of finding new members. “There over 180 hours of training, and people just have so many commitments.”
As with most departments in the region, Aspinwall’s firefighters are trained at the Allegheny County Fire Academy in North Park, but they also bring classes to their station or nearby sites. “The training is free, which really helps,” Marsico said.
Aspinwall also has a live-in program that allows them to house up to five firefighters at a time. “This is perfect for students because we are close to a lot of schools and right on the bus line,” he added.
With a base of approximately 40 members, 18 of whom are active, it can stretch their resources.
“Depending on the call, we may need three to ten guys,” Marsico said. They average about 50 calls a month, with a total of 702 calls in 2018. In addition to serving their own area, fire departments assist with emergencies in the surrounding areas to help provide coverage on fires.
“We all work together,” Marsico said.
The Richland Township Volunteer Fire Department relies heavily on word of mouth to find new members according to Chief Jim Kelly. “Our best recruiting tool is friends talking to friends, asking them to join and work together,” he said.
His greatest challenge is finding coverage during daylight shifts. “We have definitely seen a decrease over the years, especially during working hours. Employers just don’t let people leave to go fight fires like they used to,” he said.
In addition to firefighting, there are also other volunteer opportunities available.
“We are a company, so we need people with all kinds of skills; we need help with fundraising efforts, office work and billing. You don’t have to fight a fire to help,” Kelly said.
Besides, sometimes those office workers change their minds. “Once they see how we work, they decide to become firefighters,” he added.
Kelly also encourages potential volunteers to explore the Allegheny County Fire Academy Volunteer Education, Service & Training Scholarship Program (FireVEST), a joint venture between Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) and the Allegheny County Fire Academy. The program provides full scholarships for an associate degree or certificate program at CCAC for those who commit to five years of volunteer fire department service.
“I’ve had four guys get free degrees this way, and another is currently in the program,” Kelly said.