Fire companies battle ‘huge decline,’ leadership critiqued

Fire engines line the bay of Montoursville’s Volunteer Fire Department. ANNE REINER/OnthePULSE

As numbers dwindle and training requirements go up, volunteer fire companies struggle to replenish their ranks with qualified firefighters willing to put their lives in danger for others.

Time demands and leadership pitfalls are the main reasons for a serious decline in membership, area experts say.


Firefighting is a

‘young person’s game’

“There has been a huge decline,” said Todd Heckman, Williamsport Bureau of Fire chief. “Not a little decline, but a huge drop in volunteers and, also, a decline in the kind of volunteers. There is no work ethic. They like to think they are firefighters even though they have no training. But this is a hobby that will kill you.”

You wouldn’t want someone who isn’t trained on duty to save your family’s memories from turning to ash. This is why “just OK is not OK,” Heckman said, likening it to a recent television commercial: You wouldn’t want just an OK surgeon or crane operator either.

‘Only as strong as your leader’

The city chief attributed the decline in volunteers to leaders who are content with continuing the “status quo.”

“You are only as strong as your leader,” Heckman said. “I started as a volunteer in Muncy and when I was assistant chief, I thought, ‘Maybe I can change things.’ You surround yourself with good people and suck up the pride and start by saying it doesn’t matter whose name is on the truck. There are chiefs that have been in their position forever and are just maintaining the status quo and keeping people and new ideas squished down.”

Leadership is key to Scott Konkle, fire chief at Montoursville Volunteer Fire Co. He said to keep an active volunteer base chiefs need to rethink what they are doing because “that is why fire departments are dying.”

“Sometimes the people up top need to step back and think about why they are here. It’s for the community,” Konkle said. “I won’t ask my guys to do anything I won’t do. We will celebrate our 125th anniversary this year.  It’s my life, it was my father’s life, my brother’s, and my kid is in it.”

Unlike most fire companies that have trouble bringing in younger volunteers, Konkle, 57, said he only has about five or six firefighters over 60 years old, while the majority are in the mid-20s range.

“Our numbers and the age of our firefighters is a credit to the whole department,” he said.

Steep training requirements

Becoming a firefighter involves more than learning how to connect a fire hose to a hydrant or rescue people from buildings. Fire education classes impart valuable lessons but can be a deterrent for new volunteers due to the hours upon hours of training.

“There is an endless amount of courses,” Konkle said.

Beginners take an introduction to fire service course that encompasses 16 hours. Another course, firefighter I essentials, involves about 200 hours and its follow-up, firefighter II, covers 80 hours with lessons in topics including advanced rescue skills.

Hazmat training on fuel and chemical skills takes 16 hours. Basic vehicle rescue for accident scenes consumes 40 hours.

The number of hours involved in each course has changed over the years. For instance, in the 1980s, the firefighter I course took 48 hours, said Bob Whitford, Trout Run Volunteer Fire chief. Now it’s more than four times as long.

“Trying to find a volunteer willing to take that amount of training is tough. Everyone is busy and now the training is so regimented and the instructors are not as flexible as they used to be,” Whitford said. “It’s important to be structured but I believe we are hurting ourselves volunteer wise.”

Trout Run Volunteer Fire Co. has 15-20 active members. The oldest member is 82 and the youngest is 14, with the average time of service at about 22 years, Whitford said.

“So the majority of our people are on the older side,” Whitford said, who has been a Trout Run member for 37 years and fire chief for 17 years.

“A two-fold situation”

“Some areas have seen a 90 percent decline in numbers since the 1970s,” said Joe Hopple, director of emergency services for Old Lycoming Township. “It’s a two-fold situation. It takes more time to volunteer and people have less hours to give.  Most people work longer hours and have multiple jobs and two-income households and with splitting child care and the pressure on families, it’s hard to budget hours.”

You can jump on a fire truck and don’t have to have training, Konkle explained of Pennsylvania regulations. But most companies do require training due to liability.

“Some places, sadly, are more desperate than others and don’t require training,” said Joe Hanstine, a Montoursville volunteer firefighter and paramedic EMT.

According to John Yingling, director of the Lycoming County Department of Public Safety, Pennsylvania does not have one set standard of training requirements for firefighters except the hazardous training recognition course and state forestry training.

“You can basically walk in off the street and the fire chief can hand you a full set of turn-out gear and say, ‘There you are sport.’ But you will probably be a danger to yourself and those around you, so most fire companies have adopted more stringent training,” Yingling said.  

The training becomes even more important with the dwindling number of volunteers and the number of emergency calls rising each year.

A catch-all for everything

“People call 911 for everything,” Hopple said. “We never used to be called to lift someone back into bed. People use to call their neighbor.”

Fire departments have become catch-all’s, Whitford added. “If a power line falls, a fire truck goes to the site and waits until PPL arrives,” he said. “When a tree falls on the road the fire company is called to cut it up.”

“The biggest amount of calls is for lift assist, which are people who have fallen and have no help,” Konkle said. “In my eyes, that is becoming very abusive, because I’ll ask people do you have any relatives you could call? And they will answer, ‘Yes, but I didn’t want to wake anyone.’ But what they don’t realize is they just woke about 40 people. And I don’t know how to fix that because some people don’t have anyone else.”

Most firefighters are trained for emergency medical services, (EMS). Konkle said they receive 350 fire and rescue calls a year compared to 1,000 EMS calls.

Montoursville Volunteer Fire Co. has nine off-duty paramedics who are firefighters, which is rare. Paramedics have a higher knowledge of medical training than emergency medical technicians; 2,000 hours compared to 200 hours, Konkle explained.

Building alliances

Every fire company in the community is involved in mutual aid agreements, Konkle said. If there is a multi-alarm fire Montoursville will go to Williamsport to help. A new alliance began in May with Montoursville supporting the EMS transport service for Plunkett’s Creek Volunteer Fire Co. from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. There will be a 90-day trial period, he explained.

“Out of the 30 volunteer fire companies in the county, 25 were surveyed in 2016, and excluding paid emergency medical service personnel, there were 863 volunteers in the county involved in fire, EMS or fire police duties,” Yingling said. “This is still a shortfall. The highest demographic was 235 males age 41 to 59 and 52 females age 41 to 59; so you can see our emergency services are greying.”

Renewed motivation in 2018 has drawn in a younger crowd, Yingling said. Of the 10 companies surveyed so far, the largest number of recruits are males and females from 14 to 24 years old.

Some of that percentage is due to companies starting to reach out to area schools and receive help through the live-in programs.

“We look at what would it take to motivate an 18- to 20-year-old into volunteering,” Yingling said.

Author

  • Anne is a Lycoming County native with eight years of experience as a journalist, photographer and videographer. She is passionate about finding hidden stories throughout Northcentral Pa. and bringing them to life.

Anne Reiner

Anne is a Lycoming County native with eight years of experience as a journalist, photographer and videographer. She is passionate about finding hidden stories throughout Northcentral Pa. and bringing them to life.

1 Comment
  1. Chief I cannot agree with you more. I have and currently still serving as Chief of my department since 1993. I am a strong believer in training, and push it strongly to my members. I have belonged to this department since 1985, at that time we had 45 active members and ran 60 to 80 calls per year. Today I have 26 active members and run 500 to 600 calls per year, with no new members coming into the department. I feel the state fire commissioner needs to re-exam the training hours, these hours I believe are getting out of hand and deterring future membership. I think alot of these hours can be shaved down and also be put on line through computers where members can sit at home while watching their children with testing to be done online, then practical done at testing sites.

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