Nothstein: Volunteer shortage 'a serious crisis'
Pennsylvania is in crisis mode when it comes to its emergency services.
Last week, Carbon County Commissioners’ Chairman Wayne Nothstein, who is also a volunteer firefighter, spoke out about a “very serious issue” regarding the shortage of volunteers for fire and EMS, as well as how the county’s proposed Emergency Operations Center and Training Facility will help volunteers, police and county agencies get the training they need without having to travel out of the county to get it.
“We have a serious, serious problem (because of the lack of volunteers),” Nothstein said. “If you’re having a heart attack or you’re in a serious accident, you don’t have an hour to wait (for an ambulance). People better wake up and smell the roses. People are going to die. Homes are going to burn down.”
In Carbon County, five ambulance corps have shut their doors over the past several decades because volunteer numbers are dwindling and funding is falling way short of meeting the operational needs.
Shuttered ambulance corps include Summit Hill, Lansford, Nesquehoning, Penn Forest and Jim Thorpe, Nothstein said, adding that after discussing it with Weatherly ambulance volunteers, that ambulance corps will be lucky if it survives until the end of the year.
“They asked the borough (of Weatherly) for help but were told, ‘it’s not their responsibility.’ Yes, it is your (municipalities’) responsibility to provide emergency services,” he said. “The problem in the law is it doesn’t say to what degree.”
Because of the closures, Lehighton Ambulance has picked up many of those areas, adding units in Penn Forest, Jim Thorpe and Summit Hill to cover the areas, but even the paid services like Lehighton and Mahoning Ambulance are having trouble with hiring people.
Currently, Lehighton has 30 full-time and 30 part-time staff manning the four stations and has been trying to raise the salary for part-time people to attract more potential employees.
“We still have a dire emergency in being able to hire,” Nothstein said. “The problem with getting volunteers is the cost they have to spend (to become a volunteer).
To become certified in basic life support, the person must pay approximately $1,200 and complete 200 hours of training; while to be a paramedic costs over $2,000 to get started.
Because of this, volunteer numbers are dwindling, and those who do volunteer resort to double duty, both fundraising and providing the services.
The same grim picture is being found in the volunteer firefighters where the numbers continually drop.
Nothstein spoke about the number of courses volunteer firefighters must complete to be able to respond to a fire, most of the courses being held out of the county.
After spending countless hours traveling and training, these same men and women must then turn around and solicit donations through fund drives, bingos, breakfasts and other fundraisers just to keep the doors open.
Nothstein said that because of the lower number of volunteers, when an emergency response is needed, multiple fire departments are automatically dispatched just to provide enough manpower for the emergency.
“Those are expensive taxi cabs coming from other communities to help each other out,” he said.
It also has resulted in some departments consolidating services.
He also added that boroughs and townships need to step up to make sure these volunteers have the proper training, because if not, it is the municipality’s liability.
Many municipalities have adopted the Act 172 tax incentive for emergency services volunteers, but Nothstein said that is just not enough to attract new volunteers.
To help with training, Carbon County’s Emergency Operations Center and Training Center project that has been in the works will provide fire, EMS, police and county agencies with a space to conduct a variety of trainings, from active shooter, live fire and workshops all within the county limits.
“It will give them opportunities to set up scenarios to help them train and work together,” Nothstein said.
Nothstein is a member of a task force created by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. The task force was formed following the release of Senate Resolution 6, which outlined the problem regarding the future of emergency services and volunteering.
He said the group is working to figure out ways to entice people to volunteer, but “it is not going to be a short, easy fix.”
He also urged people to get out and support the fire departments, EMS and all emergency services because it may save a life when minutes count.
“Start thinking about what you can do to help,” Nothstein said. “Volunteer, donate.”