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As Fewer People Become Volunteer Firefighters, Departments Must Embrace Change

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
Mt. Lebanon Fire Chief Nick Sohyda. In addition to his job as chief, he also audits volunteer fire departments.

In Pennsylvania, unless you live in a big city like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Harrisburg or Erie, your fire department is almost certainly made up of volunteers.

In fact, 90 percent of the state’s firefighters are volunteers and the number of firefighters has been dropping dramatically since its peak in the 1970s.

A new report commissioned by legislators says the state is “in a crisis – right now.” There are about 38,000 volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania, which is just one-tenth of what it was four decades ago.

Not only does the state have fewer volunteer firefighters – they’re getting older.

“In most communities, we’re not recruiting a lot of young people,” said Mt. Lebanon fire chief Nick Sohyda. “And so what you get is three 65-year-old men showing up on a fire truck and you think you have a fire department.”

Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Bunker gear hangs in the garage of the Harmony Fire District fire house in Harmony, Pa.

Sohyda oversees Mt. Lebanon’s fire department which is a combination house, meaning it's a mix of career and volunteer firefighters. In addition to his job as chief, he also performs audits of various volunteer fire departments.

Pennsylvania has a long history of volunteer fire departments. For many years they’ve served as social hubs in the communities they serve. They’ve been a place for hanging out, for bingo nights, spaghetti dinners, fish frys and even for weddings.

While these offerings have value, Sohyda stresses that just having a fire house and fire trucks does not make a fire department.

“At a fire, you need people generally between the ages of 20 and 55 that go to training, that are physically capable, that respond fairly often, that are going to crawl down a hallway with a hoseline, put out a fire,” he said. "[They have to be able to] save your dogs, save your family, save your property.”

About 18 months ago, Sohyda completed an audit for Jefferson Hills Borough, south of Pittsburgh. The borough, which has a population of about 11,000 people, has three separate, independent fire houses. Each one has its own set of volunteers, chief and protocol. One of those houses has had trouble attracting and keeping newer, younger members.

Sohyda recommended consolidation, so that there is one central chain of command and a more equal distribution of capable firefighters. But, as with many communities, change is hard. While many of the borough’s council members and residents support a merger, others feel like they might be losing a community asset by combining fire houses.

The borough has been dragging its feet for the last year-and-a-half to formally implement a change, but at a recent public meeting, Council Vice President James Weber passionately urged leadership to move forward for fear of risking a tragedy.

“In fact, it’s putting people’s lives at risk and that has been articulated,” Weber said. “That’s not my opinion, that’s the opinion of the professional firefighters.”

Jefferson Hills is not alone.

About a decade ago, it took something terrible for firefighters at the Zelienople Fire Department to realize they had to change.

“We had three members that died in a tragic crash,” said Scott Garing.

Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA
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Hanging on the wall in the Harmony Fire District fire house are pictures of (L-R) Trevor Barkley, Sam Bucci and Elijah Lunsford who were killed in a 2010 crash. Two of the boys were junior firefighters, another was applying to be one.

Garing started volunteering at the Zelienople fire house as a teenager. In 2010, Seneca Valley Senior High School students Sam Bucci, Elijah Lunsford and Trevor Barkley lost control of their car in the winter, crashed into an icy pond and froze to death.

Firefighters didn’t show up at the scene because they were already responding to a fire. But their deaths brought about a troubling revelation.

“If we were called, we couldn’t have saved their lives,” said Garing. “We didn’t have the training. We didn’t have the knowledge.”

Garing said after the three boys died, the fire department was proactive in changing the organization. There was a move toward stricter requirements, training and professionalism.

Years later, the Zelienople department realized it could use some help financially and the neighboring town of Harmony needed more firefighters. They merged in 2014 to become Harmony Fire District, where Garing is the chief.

That embrace of a professional atmosphere, in addition to having a young, progressive chief who is open to change and new ideas, has helped Harmony attract new and younger members. It has about 60 active members on its roster, which Sohyda says is unusually high.

Additionally, Harmony Fire District offers some incentives. Firefighters can get local tax breaks and they can earn points for each call they respond to and use the points toward things like gift cards or firehouse swag. The fire department also has agreements with several local businesses so that members who are employees can leave intermittently for calls.

Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA
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Harmony Fire District president Tim Sapienza, left, and chief Scott Garing.

Sohyda, in Mt. Lebanon, said he bought new furniture, some flat screen TVs and Playstations so that the fire house will be a more desirable place for young members to hang out. The more bodies you have in the fire house, he said, the more people you can rely on for calls.

“Society has changed a lot,” Sohyda said. “We’re challenged as a service to change the way we do things, to change the way we recruit, to change our requirements.”

A Jefferson Hills spokesperson said incentives, such as a break on local taxes, are something the borough council is considering. Council members plan to make a formal vote in January.

In the meantime, if a town is waiting on county or state officials to come in and fix their problems, they'll be waiting a long time, Sohyda said. Each municipality is in charge of providing its own fire services, no matter how small. And changing fire house culture is entirely up to the departments themselves.