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Pennsylvania Fire Departments Struggling To Find Volunteers

Fire departments throughout the state are experiencing steep declines in the number of volunteers, leaving the future of the volunteer firefighter concept in question. The "Pennsylvania Burning" report indicated there were about 300,000 volunteer firefighters in 1977, but according to the commonwealth's top fire official, that number has dropped to about 50,000 to 60,000 today.

State Fire Commissioner Edward Mann said there is no simple answer, and any solution will take time to develop and implement.

"I think it's going to take a combination of things. I don't think there's going to be any one solution. I think what it's going to take, it's going to take a lot of cooperation between fire departments, local governments, and the commonwealth to come up with a toolbox, if you will," Mann said.

Current volunteers and prospective recruits find that the biggest challenge is balancing the hours required to volunteer, their job, and time at home with family. Mann said it's a tough issue that needs to be addressed.

"The leadership of the fire departments are going to have to get creative and be more respectful and mindful of the time that they're asking of their volunteers and have a plan that when they bring the volunteers to the fire station, that there's something organized for them to do so we're not flying by the seat of our pants," Mann said.

One of the proposed solutions is to offer incentives to either keep or recruit new people, such as lower college tuition rates for younger volunteers. Mann said while this seems manageable, there are certain factors that must be considered.

"One that seems to have worked in other states is what they call a Length of Service Award Program, or basically a retirement system for volunteers, and obviously it's going to require legislation and the probably hardest part of that right now is, how do you finance it?" Mann said.

Several local municipalities have already combined with others to increase available manpower.