Pennsylvania Departments Struggle with Declining Membership: November

Pennsylvania Departments Struggle with Declining Membership

In most parts of our region, if your home catches fire or you're in a car accident and need help, you depend on volunteer firefighters and ambulance crews.

But these companies are being faced with an ongoing issue.

Not enough people are stepping forward to volunteer their time to help protect their communities.

But the thousands of men and women who do volunteer throughout Pennsylvania say it's worth it.

"When you go on a call and you help someone, the feeling is overwhelming," said Chief David McFadden of the Thornhurst Volunteer Fire Company.

"After you've gone and helped somebody you get this feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment," said Jim Serfass of the Covington Volunteer Fire Company.

"It is truly an amazing feeling to be able to provide a service to the community, to be able to help people," said George Dobson of the Coolbaugh Township Volunteer Fire Company.

These men and women volunteers don't get paid but have the same basic training and skills as a paid fire department.

"The only thing that makes us different is we do this for free. We don't receive a paycheck, we don't receive any gratuity from this. The only thing we receive is a pat on the back from each other and the community every once and a while," said Chief John Zwally from the Coolbaugh Township Volunteer Fire Company.

They're on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That includes holidays.  Their sacrifice is huge.

"No matter what time of day, if you're sitting down to eat supper with the family, the tones go off, you gotta go," said Rescue Captain Bill Snyder of the Covington Volunteer Fire Company.

But volunteers like those from Thornhurst, Covington and Moscow Volunteer Fire Companies, who sacrifice so much for us, now need your help.

"Membership is a big problem.  We have more work than people to do the work. Of course money is always a problem," said Chief Clyde Jones of the Covington Volunteer Fire Company.

According to the Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner, in the mid 1970's the state had a total of 300,000 volunteer firefighters.

Today that number is down to about 50,000 volunteers.

"During the daytime sometimes we're lucky if we get three or four people to a call, which certainly is not enough," said Chief Jones.

We then visited Coolbaugh Township Volunteer Fire Company in Tobyhanna who were called out abruptly from our interview to a fire.

This company is faced with another challenge. Some residents who moved to the Poconos from bigger cities don't recognize the volunteers in action.

"A lot of people from the community don't realize what the blue lights are coming down the road. They think it's somebody with a fancy light behind them but that's actually a volunteer fireman going to the firehouse to save somebody," said Chief Zwally.

The Coolbaugh Township Volunteer Fire Company also needs volunteers.

"The young people are the future of the fire company . Without the volunteer fire company, without volunteer firefighters , there is no one to provide fire services," said Dobson.

Fire companies also need volunteers to help in other areas.

"A lot of the people who don't want to go in an do firefighting they can do our fire police and secure the scene and direct traffic . And even kids at 14, they can join our junior department and it keeps them out of trouble," said Chief Zwally.

"If membership doesn't pick up, I can see volunteers going to paid crews, at least part time.  Some have already done that with their ambulance service and taxes are going to have to go up to pay for it," said Chief Jones.

"We're helping our community and if we don't have anyone to help the community, then what's going to happen?" stated Chief Erin O'Malley of the Moscow Volunteer Fire Company.

State Representative Matt Baker from the Northern Tier introduced House Bill 214 that would create a $500 tax credit for each volunteer to pay for their fire equipment.

This bill is in the House Finance Committee since January and is awaiting action.

That House Bill 214 is just one of several other bills being considered to help volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel throughout the state.

Copyright © 2011, WNEP-TV


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