When a car caught fire three years ago on an Interstate 79 exit near his South Strabane Township home, Paul Winter ran inside, grabbed two fire extinguishers and put out the fire before the fire department arrived.
“When they got on scene, they asked me to fill out an application,” Winter said.
He’s been serving as a volunteer firefighter for South Strabane ever since.
“A lot of time and hard work goes into it,” he said.
Before he knew it, Winter became the epitome of what it means to be a volunteer firefighter – sacrificing his time and safety to help a stranger in need. Unfortunately, he’s one of a dying breed.
Both volunteer and paid-staff departments across the area are feeling the effects of the national decline in volunteer fire service. According to Tim Solobay, former state fire commissioner and current Canonsburg fire chief, the number of volunteers statewide has dropped significantly since the 1970s, when he started as a volunteer.
He said four decades ago the state had about 300,000 volunteer firefighters. Now there are roughly 50,000. Solobay has worked in Canonsburg’s volunteer department for about 40 years and was fire commissioner from 2015 to 2017. Last week, he attended a conference in North Carolina involving 30 states that are dealing with similar declines in volunteering.
“People don’t want to volunteer anymore,” he said. “Number one, it’s a danger. It’s also a time commitment.”
Reasons for decline
Over the years, many things have changed to accelerate that decline, including the types of calls to which firefighters respond.
“It used to be for a fire or car accident,” Solobay said. “We are now called for everything from A to Z. You’ve got to basically be a ‘jack of all trades’ because you never know what you’re going to be called out for.”
Calls for medical issues, drug overdoses, flooding, fallen trees or wires and animal rescues are all part of the job now, he said. This inevitably leads to an increase in necessary training.
“It’s a very dangerous job,” South Strabane fire Chief Scott Reese said. “Whether you’re volunteer or career, it doesn’t discriminate. So we have to make sure we’re putting trained personnel out there.”
Canton Township fire Chief Dave Gump said 40 years ago, 45 hours of training used to cover the basics, but “fighting fires is a lot different than it was back then.”
For a beginning volunteer, just training in “the basics” alone can take as long as 300 hours, Reese said. The state’s firefighting essentials course is about 188 hours of training, but beginners also need hazmat awareness and vehicle rescue training.
“That’s one of the biggest issues, is once you get someone in, it’s not long that they’ll take a look at that and say, ‘I don’t know if I have that much time,’” Reese said. “It’s a change in the composition where in today’s families, the mom’s working, the dad’s working and there’s very little time to go down to that fire company and donate hours.”
The national decline in volunteers has yet to be seen in Greene County, according to Waynesburg/Franklin Township fire Chief Jeff Marshall. He said property taxes and local fundraisers cover their costs, and they retain between 40 and 45 volunteers, with more than half of them showing up for calls.
But that’s not been the case in Washington County, where multiple chiefs attribute the decline to generational differences, as several of the departments are aging. Gump said the average age in Canton’s department is 50.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said. “You can’t get new ones to come in. You can’t get this next generation to step up.”
Between working full-time jobs, fulfilling training requirements, hosting fundraisers and responding to calls in the middle of the night, many of Washington County’s volunteers don’t have much family time to spare. That’s why, for many of the local volunteer departments, recruitment is all in the family.
Claysville fire Chief Dave Hilderbrand said his position is “a family thing,” because his wife, Carol, and their two daughters also volunteer in the department.
“Being in a volunteer fire department takes a lot of time, running fundraisers, taking calls and training,” he said. “There’s not much time to be at home, but we’re still spending quality time together, and doing something good for the community.”
Family is what brought South Strabane firefighter Josh Lane, 25, and junior firefighter Mitch Thomas, 17, to their local department. Thomas said he grew up in South Strabane’s station, as his father was a firefighter. Five days after Thomas turned 16, he signed up to volunteer.
“It’s been in my family my whole life,” he said.
For many communities, however, family ties have not provided enough manpower or money to keep up with growth, development, equipment costs and an increase in calls per day.
Reese said South Strabane was forced to hire some paid staff in 1998 to keep up with the township’s growth from about 200 calls per year to 725.
Solobay also said the dollars coming in from traditional fundraisers and spaghetti dinners haven’t changed for departments in 40 years, but the cost of equipment and apparatus has skyrocketed, with new trucks costing about $1 million. With the decline in volunteers, Solobay said more municipalities will need to start paying for fire service, which could put million-dollar dents in their budgets.
Canton Township recently made the decision to pay its volunteers $12 per call. The decision will cost an estimated $35,000 annually.
“It’s less expensive than hiring two part-timers or adding on full-time staff,” said Canton Township Manager Stephanie Pettit. “Everyday life is getting in the way with children, marriages, jobs and sports, so volunteering kind of hits the back burner.”
Gump said the daytime is when they’re strapped for manpower the most.
“People have full-time jobs and aren’t available to help,” he said.
Pettit said earlier this year Washington officials approached the township, asking for an annual fee of about $75,000 because its department was responding to more Canton Township calls than in previous years.
“It was more than we were able to handle at that time,” she said. “There’s no animosity toward them. Expenses have to be paid, and everyone’s in the same boat when it comes to volunteering.”
Canton is averaging two extra people per call since implementing the $12 payment, and has had five more people sign up to volunteer, Pettit said.
Incentives to help
Similar incentives are being looked into at the state level, according to Solobay. Two years ago, Act 172 provided firefighters local property tax relief or earned income credits to help incentivize volunteering, he said. Other incentives also are being considered, such as free or discounted tuition to state colleges for firefighters and their children, debt relief for volunteers with student loans, and additional online training that volunteers can complete on their own time, Solobay said.
“Helping out the volunteers is cheaper than hiring career staff,” he said.
North Strabane, which has 22 career and 32 volunteer firefighters, offers $5 per call to its volunteers, as well as a life insurance policy that includes free college tuition through certain schools, according to fire Chief Mark Grimm.
“We understand they’re volunteering their time, so we’re trying to do everything we can to provide not only for them but for their families,” he said. “At the end of the day, if it’s a big incident, we’re all going to be there. Whether paid or not, we’re all doing the same job.”
Chiefs Grimm, Gump, Hilderbrand and Solobay and other local fire personnel want to see the county start exploring a regional fire service.
“I think it would be a benefit to everybody,” Grimm said. “It would work, it’s just a matter of how you plan it. It would take some time to develop. You’re years away even if they started the process now.”
Even Washington fire Chief Gerry Coleman, who doesn’t have any volunteers in his department, wants to pursue that option, because his department often leans on volunteers from other departments for major calls, such as last year’s downtown building collapse.
“I’ve always hoped and believed that a regional fire service would best serve our area,” he said. “I hope it grows legs, but it would have to start at the municipal level.”
South Strabane supervisors brought up the potential of a regional fire service during a township goal-setting workshop in March.
“You can’t fight a house fire with two or three volunteers,” South Strabane Supervisor Bracken Burns said. “We all have an obligation to keep these folks equipped, in the ranks and responding to calls.”
Solobay said shared resources, manpower and funding could be more cost effective and ensure no call goes unanswered. He said county officials would have to be willing to take on the additional responsibility and costs involved with a regional service, and all of the municipalities and “decision-makers” would have to be willing to cooperate with one another to make it happen.
“Local government needs to take their head out of the sand, park their egos at the door and have a legitimate conversation,” Solobay said. “What are we going to do to help Washington County deal with this lack of volunteers? What’s a life worth – because that could be the cost of a delayed response because there was no one there to do it.”