Marty Reigel, Coal Township Fire Department chaplain, was addressing the “big boots to fill” for his fallen volunteer firefighter colleague, Scott W. Dannheimer, at his funeral on Thursday when he said, “We ask that somewhere along the line someone will stand up and say, ‘I am willing to do what he did.’”
He may have been referencing Coal Township’s East End Fire Co. in particular, where Dannheimer faithfully served, but the same comment could be applied to the statewide demand for people like Reigel and Dannheimer to dedicate time to their communities through the fire service.
Pennsylvania needs to provide funding and incentives and take other actions to fight a worsening “public safety crisis” resulting from a dramatic decline in volunteer firefighters during the last 40 years in the state, according to a report produced recently by a commission of lawmakers, municipal officials and emergency service professionals.
About 300,000 people volunteered as firefighters in Pennsylvania in the 1970s, but that number has dwindled to fewer than 38,000, due in part to more time demands, an aging population and societal changes.
The decentralized nature of fire service in Pennsylvania is part of the problem, according to the report, which suggests that the state must help recruit and retain volunteers and offer incentives — including tax and education credits — to that end. It also recommends the state provide more technical assistance to local departments.
There is also the theme of regionalization, or at least some merging of stations, which could save money, lessen maintenance costs and decrease the burden of fundraising.
More than 90 percent of the state’s approximately 2,400 fire companies are volunteer, and locally it’s 100 percent. And yet state fire officials estimate that volunteer firefighters save Pennsylvania communities about $10 billion annually.
Considering what’s at stake, and the sacrifice already offered by the increasingly taxed band of volunteers, it’s time we invest some of those billions in savings by implementing the report’s key recommendations. Only then can we be certain we’ll have adequate fire protection for our communities in the future.
We might also ask, “Who will stand up and say, ‘I am willing to do what he did?’”