Can a shrinking volunteer firefighting corps continue to do the job?

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A 75 percent decline in volunteer firefighters in four decades in a state system that lacks safety nets has some fire officials -- from the top man in Harrisburg to chiefs in Allegheny County -- worrying about the future of fire protection in Pennsylvania.

"There will have to be some major incentive programs to attract more volunteers. Some communities may not have any protection at all," said state fire commissioner Ed Mann, also a volunteer chief in Mifflin County.

As the number of volunteers continues to drop -- 300,000 served in the state in 1970 compared with fewer than 70,000 today -- the service model that relies on these men and women to protect boroughs and townships remains.

Officials also fear that, with little oversight or regulation and without a community's elected officials remaining vigilant or departments seeking help, the deterioration of service can go unnoticed.

"There have been small changes made along the way, but there have been no substantial changes made to the fire situation in Pennsylvania," Mr. Mann said. "When you look at the problems that were identified in the '70s and you look at some of the problems that you're looking at today, there are the same issues."

In 2005, Mr. Mann testified before a joint committee of the state House and Senate in agreement with the findings of a report that suggested volunteer fire companies merge to provide the best service possible. A senator asked him if his testimony was an attempt to sound the alarm.

"I said, 'No, senator, I'm not sounding the alarm,' " Mr. Mann recalls. "We've already burned the building down, and we're all standing around the ashes trying to figure out what went wrong."

In Allegheny County, the decline in the number of volunteers is evident with fewer firefighters responding to calls, greater call volumes and growing service areas as companies elect to back each other up because they are often unable to put out fires alone.

More difficult to ascertain is whether service has been negatively impacted by the drop. Volunteer departments aren't required to adhere to any state or county performance standards.

Some chiefs compare their companies to national benchmarks that suggest adequate response times with an appropriate number of firefighters.

But many don't.

"When you have a volunteer company, there's no guaranteed response, no guaranteed timely response and in terms of the number of firefighters responding in a timely manner, who knows," said Nicholas Sohyda, the chief of the Mt. Lebanon combination fire department and a fire service consultant for small departments.

In 2007, the state passed legislation making municipalities responsible for providing fire service to their citizens -- opening them to liability. As a result, more elected officials have taken a closer look at their fire departments' practices and some push for companies' collaborations or mergers when they recognize a need for improvement.

There are more than 200 volunteer fire companies in the 730-square-mile county. Even with the help of their council, commission and supervisor boards, many have trouble affording new equipment.

"There are just too many fire departments," Mr. Sohyda said. "I always look at what's best for the resident, and I think in some cases, the departments forget about that."

Today, most fire officials agree that merging small, struggling companies is a promising solution to the problem.

But some resist the idea.

A survey taken in 2010 in Pennsylvania showed that 69 percent of fire departments didn't have a written agreement to seek help from another department in the event of a structural collapse while fighting a fire.

On Sept. 22, Edgeworth council voted to end its fire service agreement with the Edgeworth Volunteer Fire Company. The borough said the department was down to six active members, but Fire Chief Tim Scott disputes that figure and said the number was between 10 and 12.

Due to declining membership and a fear of how that might impact future service, the borough elected to sign a deal with the Cochran Hose Company of neighboring Sewickley, said Carrie Duffield, chairwoman of the council's fire committee.

"I have a responsibility for life and property," she said.

Chief Scott said his department knew membership was declining, as it was in most companies, but members didn't know about council's decision to end service until it was already made and they were locked out of their firehouse.

He said he had considered merging his department with another company, but never had the opportunity to discuss that option with council.

"They should have come to us and said, 'This is what we think is going on and do you have any type of solution?' " he said.

Some councils are more hesitant to force the issue.

More than two years after a study suggested the Ben Avon and Emsworth fire departments merge, they -- which Paul Getz, Emsworth council president, said have a "tough past history" and conflicting personalities -- are still separate.

The study, conducted by Mr. Sohyda and commissioned by the municipalities' elected officials, was released in December 2009 and concluded that the fire companies should merge to provide better service to their residents with more volunteers and lower operating costs.

Mr. Getz said initially the departments were held up by the definition of a merger as a stronger entity taking over a weaker entity. Neither department wanted to be seen "as the weaker entity."

The groups held meetings for two years to work on the consolidation, but the Ben Avon fire department refused to participate. The department could not be reached for comment.

Despite knowing the consolidation would have been "200 percent better," Mr. Getz said, the councils left the decision up to the fire companies.

"Obviously, you don't want to pull that card and upset the men and women who are volunteers," he said. "It's better to work with them than against them."

In other situations, politics can get in the way of service.

O'Hara council voted to suspend the Guyasuta Fire Company in June after it resisted an attempt to redistribute service areas based on a department's proximity to a location and the apparatus available, O'Hara Councilman John Denny said.

The company, he said, told the township that the changes had been submitted to the county, when they hadn't.

Calls to the Guyasuta department were not returned.

Once the company was suspended, the township moved a ladder truck to Blawnox and trained 32 members of the surrounding departments to use it.

"Guyasuta never allowed or invited any of the neighboring fire companies to train on that truck," Mr. Denny said. "You only ended up having about eight officers that were trained on that truck. The township was at fault because we should have forced that years ago, but we didn't know it was that big of a problem."

The companies within the Fox Chapel Area School District are working on forming a collaborative of emergency services and equipment to cut costs and better serve their region.

Officials believe the future of the volunteer fire service depends heavily on awareness outside the stations, but the nature of fire services often leaves residents in the dark.

"The public doesn't know if we're doing our best," Mr. Mann said. "The public doesn't know if that individual driving that fire truck has only driven three times and has never been to a training this year. The fire service isn't going to tell the public, 'Hey, we messed that one up.' The public really doesn't know what appropriate fire service is."'

But in some instances, fire chiefs admit their performance has faltered.

The Clairton Volunteer Fire Company has a growing group of young volunteers and about 40 total members. That's double what many small companies have.

The average Clairton volunteer is 28 years old, the president of the department is 24, and the secretary is a 20-year-old veteran with nearly seven years of service.

Chief John Lattanzi chalks the abundance of young volunteers to luck.

And while his company is better off than most, he said on at least one occasion his fire coverage was lacking because he didn't have enough firefighters respond to a call.

He declined to cite the incident in fear of legal ramifications.

"You can always use more members," he said.

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Taryn Luna: or 412-263-1985. First Published June 14, 2012 4:00 AM


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