NEW BETHLEHEM – Volunteer fire departments in the area, and across the state, are battling more than fires these days, according to a presentation last week at the New Bethlehem Fire Hall that demonstrated that modern day firefighters are combatting problems with funding, declining membership and more.
The program, led by Jerry Ozog, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute of Harrisburg, was held to bring together the area’s fire departments with municipal officials to discuss the problems being faced to keep volunteer fire companies in operation.
And while fire companies and municipal officials from across the county were invited to the New Bethlehem program, the low turnout reinforced the challenges being faced by fire companies today.
“We have a challenge and we need to rise up to meet the challenge,” Ozog told the dozen or so people in the fire hall. “There is not going to be a savior coming from Harrisburg. The only ones who can fix that issue is you.”
In attendance were a number of members of the New Bethlehem Fire Dept., as well as three representatives from New Bethlehem Borough and one supervisor from Limestone Township.
Ozog urged volunteer firefighters to remain positive and to cooperate more with local officials in their area, as well as neighboring fire departments.
The first portion of the program included a discussion among those in attendance who were all asked to list what they feel the greatest concern is for their fire department.
The general consensus was that manpower and funding are the double-edged problem facing all departments in the area today.
“We need some more young people,” New Bethlehem firefighter Chuck Huber said.
Ozog told the crowd that the problem is common across the state, especially in rural areas, where many of the younger people have to drive out of town every day for work, leaving fire companies limited during the day and relying heavily on older members.
New Bethlehem Fire Chief Barry Fox said that funding and staffing go hand-in-hand, as volunteers who sign up to fight fires and respond to accidents are more and more saddled with spending their time fundraising to keep the fire department solvent.
“It seems to be all the same people doing fundraising,” he added. “They have to do all the fundraising plus fight fires.”
“The departments have become more fundraising departments,” Ozog said.
He noted that some departments have undertaken recruitment campaigns, going as far as extensive advertising and publicity. But, he said, the best way to get new members is to approach prospective candidates face to face and invite them.
“Retaining members is another thing,” he said, explaining that some companies have resorted to giving out gift cards to firefighters to help keep them active. He said that tax breaks adopted by the local municipalities under the state’s Act 72 law can also help entice people to stay active in the departments.
Those at the meeting noted that New Bethlehem Borough had adopted the tax breaks already.
New Bethlehem Borough Council president Sandy Mateer said a main concern is the lack of funding for local fire departments from surrounding townships.
Ozog said many departments are frustrated with unbalanced funding from the municipalities they serve.
“It’s part of your responsibility,” he said of the boroughs and townships. “Getting everyone to realize that is not easy.”
Limestone Township supervisor Harry Smathers said that townships are “up against the budget too.”
“You have the capability to work in your community to solve [these problems],” Ozog told the group. “There’s not one size that fits all in Pennsylvania.”
He then went on to talk about the need for fire departments to leave behind old practices that oftentimes kept them isolated from the larger community. He said that fire departments today need to be transparent with their finances, and need to stay away from the personal feuds and battles that sometimes develop.
“The public is losing confidence in you,” he said. “The most important thing is your credibility as an organization.”
With the age of firefighters across the state rising fast, and local populations in decline, Ozog said fire departments are “fighting something you are not going to be able to fix easily.”
While laws require municipalities to pay the worker compensation insurance for the fire companies that serve their area, there are no other requirements.
“They don’t have to do anything else,” he said, noting that many residents don’t donate to the fire departments because they think their municipalities are already contributing tax dollars to keep them going.
Ultimately, Ozog cautioned the firefighters to improve the lines of communication within their communities, suggesting that they hold an annual meeting among their department and the local boroughs and townships.