If any other vital public safety group had to rely on meat raffles, carnivals and bingo nights to raise money for life-or-death services, there would likely be a public outcry.
But for volunteer fire companies throughout much of Pennsylvania, it’s the norm.
As the state continues to struggle with a declining number of volunteer firefighters, fire companies say they are still primarily left to their own devices when it comes to funding and training, potentially complicating Pennsylvania’s effort to shore up local volunteer companies through state action.
“The control of fire protection is governed by the lowest governing body, that’s just how Pennsylvania is set up,” said Shawn Brickner, fire chief for North Middleton Volunteer Fire Company.
Like most of the state’s rural fire companies, North Middleton is struggling with membership. The company has a handful of high school students in the junior firefighter program, and a handful of volunteers in their 20s and 30s, but the majority of the help comes from those over 45, Brickner said.
Statewide, the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped from around 300,000 in the 1970s to 37,715 now, according to an estimate from the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute that was released this month as part of a state legislative report on the manpower crisis in the fire service.
This shortage of personnel isn’t just felt when volunteer crews head out on calls; it’s also felt behind the scenes.
“It’s the older generation that is holding a lot of the key positions in fire companies, not only on the fire side as line officers, but also your administrative officers,” Brickner said.
“It’s getting tougher and tougher to find folks for positions like treasurer and financial secretary,” said Tim Yingst, chief of Citizen’s Fire Company No. 1, which operates two stations in Mount Holly Springs and Boiling Springs.
“I think that’s where a lot of departments are hurting is on the administrative side,” Yingst said. “We’re a $400,000-per-year operation. It’s not a simple thing to keep track of.”
In Pennsylvania, most local fire companies exist as two nonprofit corporations: the fire company itself, and an associated fireman’s relief association. The latter is required under state law to receive disbursements from the state’s 2 percent tax on fire insurance sold by out-of-state insurers.
Municipalities in Cumberland County received a total of $1.47 million this year to allocate to fire relief organizations, according to the state auditor general’s office. Funds go toward training, protective equipment, medical assistance and other core needs.
But these allocations vary by covered population, meaning that some rural areas see relatively little.
“Some of the smaller places might see a $2,500 check annually for fire relief. That’s not even going to cover one set of turnout gear,” Brickner said.
Altogether, Pennsylvania provides about $100 million per year in state level funding for local fire companies, according to this month’s legislative report. But this is a relatively small amount given that the value of volunteer fire and EMS services in the state is estimated at $6 billion to $10 billion, with the report adding that “taxpayers will face a very steep price tag” if volunteer services continue to atrophy, and fire companies require more and more paid personnel to keep up coverage.
So far, that tax burden falls at the municipal level.
North Middleton Fire Company receives the bulk of its funding from local property tax add-ons paid to the company from North Middleton Township, which it covers fully, as well as Lower Frankford and Middlesex townships, parts of which the company provides service to, Brickner said.
The company now does less of the traditional fundraisers. It’s weekly bingo ended five or six years ago.
You have free articles remaining.
“It used to be almost everybody did a bingo. Now we’re pulling down to the last few companies that do it,” Brickner said. “It’s a generation thing. Today’s generation is not bingo players, and those types of fundraisers cannot keep up with fire services today.”
Citizen’s still does a fair number of barbecues, raffles and other events, Yingst said.
“We were asked before if we’d quit our fundraisers if we had more tax funding, and I don’t think we would,” he said. “We like doing them. We had 44 members come to our last meat raffle.”
Both North Middleton and Citizen’s have enough income that they’ve been able to steadily increase the days per week, and hours per day, that their firehouses have paid drivers on shift, Brickner and Yingst said.
Across the region, fire companies seem to agree that municipalities are doing the best they can to provide funding, but local property taxes only go so far.
“The municipalities are doing a lot better than they used to in the past,” Yingst said. “We’d like to be fully funded, but we know that’s not really an option right now.”
But steadily funded fire departments, statewide, would almost necessitate some other source of cash from higher up in the governmental food chain than local property taxes.
“In my opinion, the basic fundamentals of the fire service like keeping the heat and lights on and sending the trucks down the streets should not be dependent on fundraisers,” said Josh Bramble, assistant chief of Union Fire Company, one of Carlisle’s two volunteer firehouses.
As reported last week, Bramble and Michael Snyder, president of Carlisle Fire and Rescue Service, met with the borough to discuss regionalization efforts, which are still in their early stages.
Carlisle Fire and Rescue receives about $420,000 per year from the borough, according to budget materials provided by Snyder. But the group still runs a massive fundraising operation, with nearly $1 million in cash flow between bingo, raffles, lotteries, the annual carnival and other offerings that net about $135,000 for the fire company.
Another element of Pennsylvania’s decentralized fire protection is that municipalities are responsible for establishing their own training standards.
“They have the right to set those requirements. Most municipalities do not. They leave it in the hands of the fire company, so in most places the individual fire company determines what they require out of their personnel,” Brickner said.
The vast majority of companies require volunteers to complete a course approved by the National Fire Protection Association before they fight active fires. In the Midstate, Harrisburg Area Community College is the major source of such training.
But unless a municipality mandates it, which few do, this isn’t mandatory, Brickner saidd.
“Legally the only limit is child labor laws. If someone is 18 years old, the fire chief can let them go inside a burning house,” Brickner said — not that he, or any other chief in the area, would ever actually do that.
Carlisle does mandate that its fire companies meet a training requirement, the same training as is required for most entry-level paid firefighters, Bramble and Snyder said.
The high standards of Carlisle’s volunteer companies can almost be a double-edged sword, Union firefighter Ed Kodish said. Residents assume the companies are paid professionals, and put the idea of volunteer companies out of mind.
“A lot of people just think we’re paid because we’re getting out the door so quickly,” Kodish said.