Falling VFD ranks worry township supervisors

Volunteer firefighters from Clarion, Strattanville and Limestone Township recently teamed up for training exercises. Volunteers put in many hours preparing for emergencies they hope never happen.

CLARION - Monroe Township Supervisor Bob Lewis is worried about the state of Clarion County's volunteer fire departments.

Lewis said the issue of dwindling membership in many of the county's 15 fire companies has become worrisome.

According to Lewis, something needs to be done to increase an interest in becoming a volunteer firefighter at local departments.

According to the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, the number of volunteers at fire companies across Pennsylvania has dropped from 300,000 in the 1960s and 1970s to below 50,000 today.

"We need people to understand that there are necessities," Lewis said. "We have to sacrifice somewhere along the line."

Lewis believes the attitudes of local residents must change if the issue can be solved.

"You don't have the feeling of civic pride anymore like you had at one time," said Lewis. " I don't mean to say people don't care, but there's so many activities people are involved in now."

Lewis explained a lack of time dedicated toward the needs of the community have made it tougher for local fire companies to continue to be viable. The supervisor said he remembers a time when volunteer fire departments had waiting lists for potential members.

"A person who has a family has so many activities that they are involved in now -- like sports for their kids. Time gets taken up and they are not in a position to be available."

"Family does come first, but there are certain needs you need to take care of in order for families to stay safe."

Lewis noted the idea of paying fire companies in the area to combat the drastic decrease in volunteers is not economically feasible. Still, the Clarion County Association of Township Officials vice-president said some sort of credit toward volunteers should be enacted.

Lewis wished to broach the issue during CCATO's annual convention, which took place Sept. 26 at Knox Fire Hall, but it was never brought up.

"I was hoping through this whole process that we could get money available," Lewis said. "The firemen have so much training and for a person to take that out of their schedule and still be a volunteer, I don't think that would be fair. What we need is money to be available for training and mileage because volunteering is a benefit to the public, not the firefighter. I think the general public should pay for that."

Lewis also offered the proposition of local businesses, like restaurants, to allow 20 percent discounts to volunteers as acknowledgment of their efforts.

"I know that's making businesses pay for it, but there should be some sort of recognition," Lewis said. "We need to be concerned about these things and to make it a desirable and honored position. I don't think we have any education to the public for them to realize the need for keeping (fire companies) and sacrificing to keep them."

Clarion Township Board of Supervisors Chair Bergen Dilley said creating incentives to increase firefighter volunteerism is a tricky task. He added local fire departments are already financially strapped.

"I think Strattanville (Volunteer Fire Department) bought a new firetruck two or three years ago," Dilley said. "Trucks are very expensive. They are always doing some sort of fundraiser just to pay for trucks, upkeep and supplies. Understandably, it takes people."

Dilley recognized firefighter training can be extensive, and added it seems the names of local volunteers stay the same until they can no longer help.

"The (volunteer) has to have an interest in that type of work," Dilley said. "I would love to see younger people get involved. When a huge fire or accident happens, three or four different fire companies have to lend a hand."

Studies back position

According to a 2001 Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute study, the value of the service that volunteer firefighters across Pennsylvania provided was estimated at $6 billion.

In 2018, A Pennsylvania Senate report indicated that number may have risen to as high as $10 billion.

The report also supports the two supervisors concerns regarding volunteer recruitment and retention.

The report states a low number of volunteers can be attributed to responders and volunteers being tasked with raising the funds necessary for their own training and maintenance of facilities and equipment, with little assistance.

"Taken together, the many tasks performed by a decreasing number of volunteers only exacerbates the problem and overwhelms those who remain active," the report concludes.

Lewis admitted he has seen an effort to recruit younger volunteers at Knox Volunteer Fire Company and is interested in furthering that approach.

"Our military is allowed to go into schools to present programs," Lewis explained. "I think fire companies should be able to do the same."

"My hat is off to all the firefighters around here for what they do," Dilley said. "They are great people. It'd be nice if they had some help."