Recent news articles have detailed the offer of local tax breaks and allowances for volunteer firefighters as the spirit of volunteerism struggles to counter the dragon of multiple jobs or residents simply not interested in volunteering their time. free.
In 1977, Pennsylvania estimated there were 300,000 volunteer firefighters in the state, now that number is below 50,000.
In Delaware County, while Chester City has had a full career department for many years and Upper Darby has a mixed career / volunteer system, most departments were fully volunteer until recently.
An informal chat with some Delaware County fire officials details the challenges, the ways they try to recruit volunteers – and keep them.
In Newtown, firefighters will get 100% tax relief next year on their municipal taxes.
Radnor recently passed a resolution to offer eligible firefighters a stipend of $ 1,000 to encourage greater participation. Haverford also approved a grant of nearly $ 1,000 from pandemic funds for its firefighters.
“It’s a really big plus,” said Manoa Fire Co. chief Mike Norman Jr. “It’s a unique thing that we weren’t expecting. We are very grateful to the key players, Mr. Burman (Township Director) and our CFO and Commissioner, who saw the need for the fire department and recognized it.
Newtown Square Fire Chief Doug Everlof said the Newtown Tax Credit is helpful; however, it does not help tenants and those who do not live in the township.
Newtown Square has explored a number of other methods to supplement its 36 active members. Officials advertised through township newsletters and websites which attracted a few new members and when they recently built their new fire hall, they included the ability of resident members who would react to the fire trucks. in exchange for a free room and board.
This program has been successful in other places. However, currently only one Newtown Square firefighter is taking advantage. Everlof noted the lack of a college or university in their district to attract young students who would be interested.
Down the street in Aston, home of Neumann University, the housing program has been a success for several years.
“We have had a residency program for almost 20 years and have found it to be very successful,” said Sean Joyce, President of Aston Township Fire Co. “This idea was not original to us… students who would pass the night in the fire station, would live in the fire station in exchange for a free room and board, they would get on the fire trucks, what a new concept, it works great for us. “
Joyce said the program does not get enough credit and reduces response times when members live at the station.
Currently, Aston’s live show is on hiatus as they move into their new $ 7 million station, but Joyce has said he will return.
The Aston Township Fire Department is also one of the few stations in Delaware County that has changed as a result of mergers. In their case, the Aston-Beechwood and Green Ridge fire companies merged in 2015 to form the new company, but Joyce said this was meant to improve efforts to find grants and funding not due to the workforce.
Joyce said the Aston Township Fire Department has a recruiting and retention committee and is always looking for new members.
“We are very fortunate to have between 35 and 40 active members. We are one of the lucky companies in Delaware County, ”Joyce said. “We’re always looking for members in whatever capacity, it doesn’t just have to be someone who wants to be a firefighter, you have people with all kinds of different skills that support our organization. “
John Croce, Deputy Chief of Sharon Hill Fire Co., supports this point. It welcomes people who want to help who might not want to fight fires.
“There is so much more to do than fight fires and I think a lot of people don’t realize it,” said Croce. He noted that traders are a great asset that can help businesses.
Sharon Hill Fire Co. is also in the second year of a three-year Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Appropriate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) endowment to provide a funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighting organizations to help them increase or maintain the number of trained and “frontline” firefighters available in their community.
The company contracted with a public relations firm, Communications Solutions Group, to create a media campaign that includes a website with videos, postcards to residents and social media posts to attract new members.
“We got about ten strong new members from the recruiting program,” said Croce.
Other Delaware County companies that have received the SAFER grant include Clifton Heights, Darby, and Collingdale. Croce said they worked with someone familiar with the grant process and used his services for other state and federal grants.
Croce said other recommendations from the PR firm were to organize events to engage the public, such as a recent Halloween candy check. They also want to recruit from local schools, but this is on hold as the pandemic continues.
Croce said their station, which has 25 active members, also runs a program to encourage young people to join. They have a cadet program for 14-16 year olds and a junior program for 16-18 year olds to get members when they are young.
Croce said that as their daytime workforce dwindled, they went to borough officials and were able to bring in two part-time 9 to 5 firefighters, the hours when many members are on duty. work and are unable to respond. The pandemic interrupted funding for this program. But they hope to bring him back in the coming year.
When it comes to recruiting, fire company officials have said the fire departments are literally families. In fact, most stations rely on a family staple to get the trucks out.
“Membership comes from families,” said Norman, who is himself a second-generation firefighter in Manoa. “Thirty-five to 40% of the firefighters in Haverford Township are second or third generation… generations are part of what makes the system work. “
Joyce agreed. He said his daughter hopes to join the Aston Cadets soon and that helps restore his enthusiasm for the job.
“(With potential members) We try to be upbeat and positive as much as possible, we’re kind of like family, it’s a fun atmosphere, you will learn a lot and help your neighbors,” Croce said of his argument to Sharon. Hill He also noted that it can help advance your career.
Croce noted that being a trained volunteer is now a huge stepping stone to becoming a paid firefighter who is filling positions across the county. The Radnor, Newtown Square, Tinicum and Concordville fire companies are among a number of other departments that now have paid staff to support volunteers.
Joycve said the Township of Aston Fire Department also recently received a SAFER grant that it will use to hire two firefighters in 2022.
Those who spoke agreed that there is a future for volunteers in Delaware County.
“The Haverford Township Fire Department is doing well. We can always use more volunteers, ”Norman said. “Unfortunately, two volunteers lost their lives due to COVID last year. Deputy Chief Nick Sava of Oakmont and Firefighter Frank Farrelly of Bon Air both lost their lives to COVID. “
“In my opinion, there will always be volunteer firefighters in Delaware County,” said Joyce of Aston. “However, in the future consolidations and mergers make sense for some departments and in other departments, it will be a combined department where you will have paid emergency firefighters at certain times of the day, when you will not have not the workforce. I think voluntary service will have to evolve over time.
“I think the volunteer fire companies will still be there, but I think the architecture will be a little different,” Everlof said. “More departments have to rely on some form of additional staff.”
Joyce ended with an opinion that every firefighter agreed with.
“If you’re interested in joining not only our department, any Delaware County fire department, we’d love to have you all,” Joyce said. “Come see what it is and if you have any questions each department has an exercise night or meeting night that varies from week to week. Ours is Thursday evening and we would like people to come and inquire about becoming a member. “