‘Are we doing what’s best?’ How one Pa. fire department is trying to save its volunteer service

The volunteer firefighting tradition in Pa. is disappearing. Supporters are doing what they can to prevent it

By: - April 13, 2022 6:30 am
Merion Fire Company of Ardmore, Pa.

Fire trucks outside the Merion Fire Company of Ardmore, Pa. (Submitted photo)

By Davis Giangiulio

LOWER MERION TWP., Pa. — In 1978, Charles “Chas” McGarvey joined the Lower Merion Township Fire Department as a volunteer firefighter. Back then, it was typical for only one company to handle a fire call.

Fast forward 43 years, and McGarvey is now the new Pennsylvania state fire commissioner, after 15 years of being chief of the suburban Philadelphia fire department. And now, when the department responds to house fires, they send out all of their seven companies. 

The department does this now because the volunteer firefighting tradition is disappearing. In the 1970s, there were around 300,000 volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania. In 2018, there were just 38,000. The U.S. Fire Administration reports 96.8% of firehouses in Pennsylvania are completely or mostly volunteer, and 90% of LMFD’s 250 members are. That’s why this decline is so significant. 

“When I first joined we had about 55 [active] firefighters in Bryn Mawr,” said McGarvey about one of the firehouses. “Now there’s probably 25.”

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The fire service turns into a community for many. “I grew up around the firehouse,” said Tim Van Winkle, a volunteer firefighter for the department since 2003, and the assistant chief of the Merion Fire Company. 

Lower Merion volunteer Brady McHale joined when he was 16. “I was intrigued by driving by the firehouse,” he said. “It [became] an extension of the family.” The problem is fire departments are having trouble expanding that family. 

LMFD Deputy Fire Marshal James "Jim" McCoy
Lower Merion Fire Department Deputy Fire Marshal James “Jim” McCoy (submitted photo).

One of the reason is increased training requirements. Prerequisite coursework to achieve firefighter 1 certification lasts approximately 178 hours, according to a spokesperson for the Office of the State Fire Commissioner. Lower Merion Deputy Fire Marshal James “Jim” McCoy recalled when he joined in 1985 it took 32 hours.

“That’s a lot of time for an individual who works, who has a family,” Lower Merion Commissioner Daniel Bernheim, who chairs the township’s fire committee, told the Capital-Star.

Societal changes have also impacted the fire service. With two parents working, that means one can’t go out to a fire call while the other stays home. Employers also are giving less leniency to someone who needs to respond to calls. And college students who go off to school, and don’t return home, also add to the crunch.

Never mind the risk involved, which was highlighted by two tragic deaths for the Lower Merion department July. McCoy said, “it’s a very dangerous job,” and thought the two deaths made some reconsider volunteering.

What’s happening in Harrisburg?

At the statewide level, lawmakers in 2017 approved the creation of a commission that would investigate and generate recommendations to address the decline. 

Some of the recommendations from that panel already have been adopted. They include making training more accessible for firefighters by adding online options, making it easier to recruit young volunteers and increasing financial incentives

State Sen. Patrick J. Stefano, R-Fayette, chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee, said despite bipartisan consensus, passing these major changes take time.

And in the years since the Senate approved the study commission, COVID-19 has dominated legislation. “A lot of things we were hoping to get done got overshadowed,” said Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence, the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee.

The Senate resolution also had recommendations for municipalities, focusing on engagement and education. That’s the exact theme of LMFD’s comeback plan. 

One of those strategies was going up on local airwaves in August 2019. One person in an advertisement says, “I think a lot of people don’t know that we’re just normal people, who have regular jobs, and go to school.” The end of the commercial features the website joinlmfd.org. There, people find where their local company is and how to join. 

A fire truck from the Union Fire Association, Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
A fire truck from the Union Fire Association, Bala Cynwyd, Pa. (Submitted photo).

This is all part of a branding process for the Lower Merion department, according to McHale, who sits on the recruitment and retention committee. Simple initiatives like putting banner advertisements up at the firehouses have yielded “unbelievable” results.

Van Winkle, also a member of the recruitment and retention committee, said they additionally hired a social media consultant to help.

“We got a significant amount of volunteers across the township as a result,” Van Winkle said of those efforts. 

But even with all these plans, shortages remain. McGarvey said LMFD struggles to have the four required firefighters at a scene to go into a home, where two are inside and two are outside.

“Mergers I think are part of the future,” said McCoy. “If two companies who are close to each other are having difficulty, maybe merging gives you one stronger house.”

“If the reality is we’re unable to properly man fire companies with volunteer personnel, then we would have to look at having more career personnel,” said Bernheim. That comes with a cost, as the National Fire Protection Association estimates in 2014 alone volunteer firefighters saved governments $46.9 billion.

At the state level, discussions are ongoing about delegating more power over the fire service to counties. Stefano said it would help firehouses financially. But there is resistance. “You have some firefighter companies that are very good at fundraising and they want to control what they buy and do,” he said. 

Sainato, meanwhile, is pushing for tax credits and college financial aid for younger volunteers to retain members. 

McGarvey believes a reassessment is needed. “Are we doing what’s best?” He added there will be consequences “if we don’t look to change the way we are currently doing things.”

But for current volunteers, even with dwindling numbers, strong passion remains for the work. “We get to do some really cool things,” said McHale. “The volunteer fire service has given me so much. I feel I owe it to them, and I am not alone.”

Davis Giangiulio is a freelance journalist from suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @GiangiulioDavis.

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