Pennsylvania fire departments facing volunteerism emergency

PENNSYLVANIA — The state of volunteer firefighting is in a crisis.

That is the assessment of Acting Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Thomas Cook and multiple fire officials in the state, nation and Valley.

The current model of volunteer firefighting in Pennsylvania is based on the long-standing tradition going back to the 1700s when Ben Franklin founded the first volunteer department in Philadelphia. That model has continued virtually unchanged since that time, said Cook.

“With the evolution of society, the volunteer fire service is facing several crises,” Cook said. “The financial crisis: the process of selling hoagies no longer generates enough money to buy a vehicle that now costs between $500,000 and $1 million. The second crisis — it is no longer looming. I think we’re actively engaged — is the staff issues across the board. Volunteerism is down.”

The issues are complex. Cook and other fire leaders said they range from aversion to change to societal transformations of the family unit where both spouses are now working to increasing extracurricular activities for children. It means fewer people are coming out to fight fires, which leads to second and third alarms being called not due to the severity of the incident but to the lack of manpower.

The National Volunteer Fire Council reported in 2018 that volunteers comprise 67 percent of firefighters in the United States. Of the total estimated 1,115,000 firefighters across the country, 745,000 are volunteers.

The number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. reached a nearly 40-year low in 2017 with 682,600 but rose again in 2018 with 745,000. At the same time, call volume has tripled in the last 30 years, due in large part to the increase in emergency medical calls, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.

In Pennsylvania, the number of firefighters is estimated to be between 36,000 and 38,000. The state does not require fire departments to report the number of volunteers. The number of volunteer firefighters is an estimated 30,000. In 1975, that number was 360,000, according to The National Volunteer Fire Council and the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

“We used to turn out 100 men for a fire, but now it might be down below 10 for a rural fire,” said Cook. “Those are the main issues. How do we get money and how do we get people.”

“It’s an oversimplification of the problem to say that we waited too long,” said Cook. “Society in 2021 is nowhere near comparable to 1760s Philadelphia. It’s a different culture, it’s a different society, but we’re still using the core business model for firefighting. The problem has been hiding in the background as long as I’ve been involved (for 40 years). It’s really come to the forefront in the last 10 to 15 years.”