As with most volunteer organizations, membership in fire companies has dropped over the years. The Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute website reveals that the numbers of volunteer firefighters have plummeted from about 300,000 in the 1970s to about 50,000 today.

Junior firefighter programs help companies replenish their ranks.

"It's definitely an important program to introduce kids to volunteer service," says Coaldale Fire Chief Richard Marek. "Junior firefighter programs develop camaraderie. They help to mold young people for the future as far as teamwork goes. And they teach the importance of giving back to the community that's something we don't see a lot of these days."

Volunteers are a crucial resource to the state's 2,400 fire departments: They are dependent on their local governments, donations and their own fund raisers to survive. A 2001 study by the PFESI found that "volunteer fire service companies yielded about $6 billion in avoided costs to local governments. Figures from Independent Sector, a coalition of nonprofit organizations, suggest that the hourly value of a Pennsylvania volunteer firefighter is $20.51."

In June, state lawmakers approved legislation that provides $30 million in grants for fire companies and other first responders. The grants range from $2,500 to more than $15,000.