- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

FAIRLESS HILLS, Pa. (AP) - Area fire companies could go out of business if they don’t start winning the battle against a lack of volunteers.

The situation is so dire, firefighters say, that a marketing campaign was started to get more people to join up.

Falls Fire Co. Chief Michael McClellan Sr., who has been a volunteer for 39 years, believes more than that is needed. Increasing the number of volunteers, and retaining them, might take the government to offer benefits such as tax breaks, he said.

That would help get people in the door, he said.

“The training to become a firefighter requires 190 hours and is a real commitment that many people can simply not stick to,” he said. “There are not as many neighborhoods being built anymore, so the pool to get volunteers is dwindling. And that pool, what’s left of it, is getting older.”

Recruiting new volunteers isn’t just a Bucks County problem, said Rob Sponheimer, who heads up firefighting operations in Bensalem. The problem exists across the country, he added.

“Volunteer firefighting numbers have been declining throughout the country for years and Pennsylvania is no exception. Volunteering as a firefighter can be very rigorous and time-consuming. In today’s day and age, people working two or three jobs, raising families just don’t have time to commit to becoming a volunteer,” said Sponheimer, Bensalem’s battalion chief.

The marketing campaign at www.bucksfire.org is a good idea, he said, but he hasn’t heard of too many success stories of new volunteers joining and being retained.

But almost 40-year volunteer Jerry Barton disagrees. He’s one of the co-chairmen of the site, which was created by the Bucks County Fire Chief & Firefighters Association and is funded by a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant (SAFER) from the Federal Emergency Management Association.

Since the site was launched in March, 666 people signed up at one of the 67 Bucks County fire departments and 322 volunteer inquiries have been posted to it, he said.

“We got 324 new members in 2014,” he said. “We still need more volunteers. The population is aging. We have several members in our company (Parkland Fire Co.) with 50 years and more of service.”

Once someone shows interest on the site, that information is then provided to individual fire chiefs, based on the geographic location of the applicant.

It’s then up to the chiefs of the individual departments to get in touch with the potential volunteers and they take it from there.

Rob Kay, co-chair of the Bucks County Fire Chiefs & Firefighters Recruitment and Retention Committee said, “666 inquiries does not result in 666 people volunteering or remaining volunteers. Some people inquire but then decide to not pursue volunteering after they do. In other instances loyal, long-term volunteers move out of the area or take on new jobs which make volunteering no longer an option for them, so our needs are ongoing.”

Kay went onto to say, “I know for a fact that our advertising has brought more membership in but getting a firm number from each station is next to impossible because officers change each year and we are all volunteers.”

Meanwhile, Barton, whose father was a firefighter and his son is one in the state of Delaware, said the ad campaign has been successful, although funding is running out.

“We are going to apply for a federal grant to try and keep the program going. The television exposure has brought the most people in, but we tried it in the movie theaters and the response was terrible,” Barton said.

But gone are the days when the number of volunteers was high, when teens couldn’t wait to join up.

Barton was one of them.

He and bunch of friends joined the Langhorne-Middletown Fire Co. when they were 16.

“I was gung ho. I always wanted to get involved in something constructive. Hanging out at the firehouse was better than getting in trouble,” he said, adding that his father was also a firefighter.

Ed Zeek is another rarity today. He’s in his mid-60s, works a 10-hour day doing physical labor and then heads to the Falls Fire Co., where he volunteers untold hours.

Zeek, fit and trim as a man half his age, said after nearly 50 years of volunteering, “I’d be lost without (firefighting).”

Zeek has a son who also is a volunteer firefighter. In fact, the Falls Fire Co. has about a half dozen families with one or more volunteer members.

McClellan Sr., who has been fighting fires since 1976, when he was still a teen, has two sons who fight fires.

Mike Jr. is a paid firefighter in Washington, D.C., and is stationed at the fire station, which would be the first one called for a fire at the White House. Younger brother, Kyle, is a Falls firefighter.

“It’s in my blood,” McClellan Sr. said. “I joined because a friend of mine suggested it. I remember going to my first fire and when I got back, my dad made me steak and eggs. I will never forget that,” he said.

But things have changed, the firefighters say.

That’s why Bensalem, where township officials have the luxury of millions in casino revenue, four years ago started a full-time career department called Bensalem Township Fire Rescue.

It operates from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. There are 10 firefighters, seven full-time and three part-timers.

“Our primary responsibility is to respond as firefighters to emergency incidents throughout the township. In addition, we also conducted fire inspections, fire investigations, fire prevention/education programs and review plans for fire code compliance,” Sponheimer, the battalion chief, said.

He added that the paid crew works very closely with the six volunteer fire companies in the township. They are Eddington, Cornwells, Union, Trevose, Newport and Nottingham.

“Our paid department definitely helps during the daytime hours when volunteer staffing is extremely low. Our arrival time to an incident is about four minutes, which is very important because fires can double in size about every minute or so,” he added.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1zvR1Ig

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Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, http://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com

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