It has been considered one of America’s oldest jobs, but volunteer fire departments — locally and nationally — are facing a decline that could spell trouble for the communities they serve.
According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, volunteer firefighters make up 69 percent of the United States’ fire service. Fire protection in the Abingtons is based exclusively upon volunteer service.
John Holbert, a 54-year volunteer with the Dalton Fire Co., described his department’s
“The problem started gradually, about 10 or 15 years ago — so gradually that we didn’t realize it for a few years,” he said. “Looking back to the 1970s up to the 1990s, we had in our records between 75 and 100 members, with 35 or so considered active members. Today, we have 40 or 50 on the books with 15 or 20 active responding members.”
According to representatives from both the Chinchilla Hose Co. and the Clarks Summit Fire Co. No. 1, those departments have also seen a decline in numbers over the years.
Kimberly Quiros, a spokesperson for the National Volunteer Fire Council, explained that there are two major reasons for the decline in volunteers; namely lack of free time and fluctuating communities.
“Many people don’t have the time available because they have a two-income household or they may be working two jobs to counter the tough economy, or they may have to commute further to work as jobs may be harder to come by,” she explained. “Many people are leaving smaller or rural communities that depend on volunteers to find job opportunities in bigger cities that have either career departments or else have combination departments, but the individual doesn’t have the same attachment to the community and, thus, does not feel the desire to volunteer.”
Chief Jake Hoinowski of the Clarks Summit Fire Co. No. 1 offered another potential reason for a lack of volunteers.
“I always thought people were reluctant in joining because of the mentality of, ‘Why should I do it when there is somebody else that is willing to do it,’” he said. “Nowadays, there is no one else to do it. It is a dangerous job to do for nothing and I understand that but I don’t believe danger is an issue. I truly believe it’s the time that is involved in being a qualified regular active member to any fire company.”
Hoinowski also cited the amount of hours needed for training, most of which is dictated to volunteer fire departments by the National Fire Protection Agency with the Pennsylvania Office of the State Fire Commissioner. The Pennsylvania Firefighter 1 certification is approximately 200 hours in four training modules, covering the fundamentals of fire fighting and hazardous materials.
James Waters, the chief of the Chinchilla Hose Co., offered suggestions on how area fire departments could entice people to volunteer.
“Residents may not know that they can give back to their fire department, or they may just simply not know how to go about joining,” he said. “Without public relations, you may never reach these people.”
“Public relations are a major part in fixing the shortage,” he continued. “Departments must be out in the community doing things as simple as meeting with residents, even when there is no emergency at their house. Making the department known in the community and keeping the residents informed of what you do and the needs of your department is key.”
For Jake Hoinowski, who has volunteered for 26 years, it is all about how people are taught today versus 30 or 40 years ago.
“Today’s society doesn’t really teach people from a young age to donate your spare time to a great cause; today’s society teaches to go to school and find a job that pays well,” he said. “I personally help because I was taught to help anyone and everyone. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a fireman, I didn’t know what it entailed at 16 years old and I didn’t care. I would by lying to myself if I didn’t say it was fun. I have fun doing this job and I always have, through good times and bad.”