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Fire Companies Struggling to Get Volunteers PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 05 April 2010 21:56

Cumberland County
Fire companies struggling to get volunteers
Local fire companies struggle to identify ways to attract, keep volunteer firefighters

By Becca Gregg, Sentinel Reporter, April 4, 2010

With spring heating up and summer right around the corner, local fire companies are gearing up for yet another season of ever-increasing volunteer shortages and losses.

Formerly a thriving activity, officials say volunteer numbers have slipped in recent years with shifting priorities and increasing family and time constraints.

In an attempt to recruit new members, fire companies across the region have upped the ante and are offering incentives to both attract and retain volunteer firefighters.

From gift cards to retirement packages, the term “volunteer” has taken on an entirely new meaning.

Why the shortage?

According to Deputy Fire Chief Mark Farrell of the Monroe Township Volunteer Fire Company, membership numbers have been hit hard by changing times.

“In general, when our parents were kids and when our grandparents were kids, there was more of a community atmosphere. It was easier to have people available than it is today,” he says. “Most of us have so many obligations on us today that it’s hard to get people to take the extra time. Something like the volunteer service, you really have to spend a lot of time to be trained and be beneficial.”

And despite declining membership, the amount of training required by the state is seemingly on a constant rise.

“The training it takes just to be an entry-level firefighter is right around 220 hours just to go in and do the basic,” Upper Allen Township Fire Chief Jim Salter says. “Those hours on top of just learning about the fire station is very time consuming and it takes a lot of time up that you don’t have.”

Adds Farrell, “When you’re at your (day) job you can spend eight hours a day with someone. In a volunteer company, we train a few hours a week, and when the pager goes off there’s not a lot of time to sit down and talk about it. You don’t want to lose somebody in the wayside.”

In addition to the level of commitment, Salter says, the age of court battles and widespread lawsuits has opened up a new can of liability that many people don’t want to risk.

“When you join a volunteer fire department, you’re opened up to a lot of scrutiny. Some of it’s unwarranted, some of it is deserved,” Salter says, adding, “It’s kind of scary that when you get called into court for something and you have the chance of being put under the microscope. You run the risk of getting in bigger trouble.”


Fighting it

It takes a special breed of person to volunteer their time and services as a firefighter — and that’s just who Farrell, Salter and other local department heads are hoping to target with revamped recruiting programs and new incentives.

“We do try to do some things for our members insurance-wise. We’re covered under the township for workman’s comp, but we go beyond that and we do some accidental death and dismemberment coverage,” Farrell says of the Monroe Township Volunteer Fire Company. “There’s been a lot of discussion about adding some benefits or some incentives. How can you give some kind of reward for going to calls? We have not put anything in place yet, but we’ve tossed around the idea to reward them.”

In many municipalities, such as Hampden Township, volunteers are being rewarded with small gestures of appreciation, like gift cards.

“For many years, (Hampden Township) has given free pool passes to members of the fire company and their families, and (at Christmas), a $25 gift card is given to each member,” Hampden Deputy Fire Chief Jerry Ozog says. “One incentive that we do provide is any type of fire training that you want, above and beyond the normal training, as long as you’re an active and participating (member).”

In-house rewards

In Upper Allen Township, volunteers are rewarded with a form of in-house gift certificate.

“We currently do an Upper Allen Dollars-type thing that we give out at the end of the year based off of calls responded to. We give them an allotment to buy fire department clothing so they don’t have to (spend their own money),” Salter says, adding that the township is considering offering gas re-imbursement for members as well. “As the gas prices rise, there’s got to be some kind of monetary (reward) given to them.”

In addition, Upper Allen has discussed options for a small yearly compensation based off of participation levels in calls and fire department activities, he explains.

In other counties, many departments are even beginning to offer “retirement packages” for members who have been with the department for 20 years. “Once you do 20 years of active service, you could get some kind of retirement check each week, like $150,” Salter says.

The future

“I can tell you that I see all the companies around us having their ups and lows in membership. Everybody has that struggle. It’s not something that just a few fire companies are affected by, it’s all of us that are affected,” Farrell says, adding “But everybody struggles with the same thing. How do you maintain yourself for the main haul?”

And to prepare themselves for that “main haul,” many fire companies are seeing their recruitment practices shifting more towards the youth, with added mentoring programs and fire station open houses to rouse interest.

“Most of the guys and girls that stick with it have a common interest and like to help people. They come up to the firehouse and like the camaraderie,” Salter explains. “It’s like a second family and sometimes that’s why you get involved and you stick it out, because you do have a second family.”

Adds Ozog, “It’s a lot of commitment, (but) it’s a lifestyle.”

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