National Fire Prevention Week is October 6 to 12 and this year’s theme, as adopted by the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), is “Not Every Hero Wears a Cape. Plan and Practice Your Escape!”
“Every 24 seconds, a fire department in the United States responds to a fire somewhere in the nation. Although the numbers of fires and fire deaths have decreased significantly since the 1970s, some statistics are more troubling,” says a post on the NFPA website.
One of those troubling statistics is the decrease in the number of volunteer firefighters in the country. In our neck of the woods, most often the firefighters that respond to a fire are volunteers, and the number of volunteers is dwindling.
In Pennsylvania, a study released in October 2018 reported that in the 1970s, there were more than 300,000 volunteer firefighters in the state, and that number dropped to about 38,000 last year. “We’re at a crisis situation when it comes to volunteerism in our firefighting departments across the Commonwealth,” said state Sen. Lisa Boscola at a hearing on the issue on October 3.
State lawmakers have considered a number of laws intended to attract more young people to the ranks of the volunteers, and one is debt forgiveness to pay for college. Any volunteer firefighter who had four years of active service would be able to deduct up to $16,000 of the cost of attending a state college.
The bill is just one among about two dozen that would provide volunteer firefighters with everything from tax credits for volunteers and their employers to workers compensation claims for post traumatic stress syndrome.
Over 90 percent of the state’s 2,400 companies are staffed by volunteers and they bring a lot of value to communities. If all the volunteers in Pennsylvania were to be replaced by paid firefighters, the cost would be an estimated $6 billion.
This year’s version of the bill calls for the state to provide college-debt forgiveness for those in the volunteer fire service after four years of active service. Lawmakers would have to allocate funding for the program each year.
The situation across the river in New York state is similar to the one in Pennsylvania. According to Fireman’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY), the number of volunteer firefighters in the state declined from 110,000 in 1990 to 84,000 in 2019.
The impact of the decline in volunteers locally was seen dramatically last year when Tusten Town Board voted to dissolve the Tusten Fire Protection District and to extend the Narrowsburg Fire District into all of the Town of Tusten. Although they remain separate departments at this time, it is expected that this action will eventually lead to the merger of the Narrowsburg and Lava Fire Departments.
But the decline in New York has slowed or in some cases stopped after the volunteer fire companies launched a program called RecruitNY, a program where participating fire departments open the doors to the public each year in April in an effort to gain new volunteers.
“Volunteer fire organizations have added upward of 20,000 members through the years thanks in part to the RecruitNY initiative,” says a post on the RecruitNY website.
Still, perks are used to entice new volunteers to sign up. FASNY has developed a higher education learning plan where “student-volunteers are eligible to have up to 100 percent of their tuition reimbursed (with any single semester award not to exceed $1,500) in exchange for maintaining defined grades and fulfilling established service requirements in one of New York’s volunteer fire companies.”
And state lawmakers have come up with additional incentives bring up the numbers. Volunteer firefighters can take advantage of property tax abatements, income tax credits and other perks.
Some lawmakers believe the benefits should be even more generous. Republicans in the legislature earlier this year proposed the volunteer firefighters and EMS workers should be fully exempt from state income tax in return for their volunteer service.
Today, it’s more difficult to serve as a volunteer firefighter than in was in previous decades. The training requirements are much more demanding than they used to be, the cost of equipment is much higher and the demands on the volunteer’s time for firefighting, training and fundraising are higher. Volunteers deserve any incentives the state can give them.