Calling volunteer first responders
Nesquehoning Hose Company Fire Chief John McArdle’s urgent plea last month for more volunteer firefighters was reminiscent of a scene playing out in small communities across the state.
This is not new, but it is getting increasingly worse with each passing year. Taken to its logical endgame, it doesn’t take a genius to see where this will take us. If something significant is not done, either communities will have to pay more for fire protection, or residents will have to rely on their own devices. I can’t even imagine the latter scenario.
McArdle, who also serves as Nesquehoning’s emergency management coordinator, described it as a “crisis” when he spoke to members of the borough council.
He was echoing the same theme expressed in the release of a recent statewide report that laid out the alarming statistics along with more than two dozen recommendations to try to address the scary problem.
My concern and those of many local fire officials is that this problem has been going on for decades without an understanding of the need for immediate action. Studies have been done; recommendations have been made, but the state has been slow to act to try to address the problem head-on.
According to a state firefighters’ group, for more than a half-century, state legislators have been urging commissions to come up with recommendations to deal with the challenges created by a system that relies so heavily on volunteers, but then the recommendations for the most part are ignored.
With more than 2,300, Pennsylvania has more volunteer fire companies than any other state in the union, according to the Office of the State Fire Commissioner.
More than 40 years ago, when this department was created, there were more than 300,000 volunteer firefighters statewide. Today, that number is down to about 38,000, a decrease of about 87 percent.
Former state Fire Commissioner Ed Mann pointed to a 2005 study that recommended a regional approach to fire protection, but, he said, no meaningful legislation ever came from the proposal.
Mann has shown renewed optimism with the latest group of recommendations that was released in late November, but he also cautioned that it does no one any good if this report sits on a shelf somewhere and accumulates dust, as was the case with its predecessors.
Mann said he hopes the state takes up the recommendations of the most recent commission report, which in November released 27 steps to be taken to help the state’s fire and EMS agencies.
Some of the steps include regionalizing and merging smaller companies, expanding, modernizing and giving incentives for recruitment and retention efforts, using financial and nonfinancial incentives to recruit and retain first responders, developing a mental wellness and stress management protocol for first responders; and involving fire and EMS volunteers in the development of proposed legislation.
Simply put, Mann said, “I don’t want to be serving on another commission in 14 years, God knows what shape we’ll be in.”
Similar issues face ambulance corps. The number of emergency medical services agencies in Pennsylvania has shrunk from 2,000 in the late 1980s to fewer than 1,000 today. Pennsylvania has lost more than 10,000 responders — 6,252 emergency medical technicians and 4,186 paramedics, according to the latest statistics from the Ambulance Association of Pennsylvania.
Some leaders describe it as a perfect storm of lower insurance reimbursements that don’t cover operating costs and the inability of some lower-income patients to pay for services.
Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill three months ago that permits ambulance corps to bill insurance companies even if the patient refuses to be transported to a hospital or medical facility.
As you read this, you may be wondering how this affects you. It’s simple: The fewer volunteers who respond to a fire or emergency, the less safe you should feel.
Volunteers save taxpayers millions of dollars annually. Unfortunately, we sometimes take their efforts for granted, figuring that they will always be around. Even worse, we sometimes dismiss volunteer fire companies as glorified social clubs.
Being a volunteer requires a huge outlay of time. As firefighters will confirm: Being a volunteer is similar to having another job. Not only do they answer calls, but they must train, attend weekly meetings and undergo physical testing. They are also expected to help raise money to keep their volunteer companies afloat. A lot of prospective volunteers just don’t have the time to make that much of a commitment.
By Bruce Frassinelli | firstname.lastname@example.org