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ROSS TOWNSHIP (KDKA) — It was early afternoon when the radios went active at the Laurel Gardens with a dispatch: “101 Highland Pines Drive Perrytown Place, coming in as a general fire alarm.”

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Chief Ray Hillenbrand recorded the address on the station’s whiteboard and waited.

“I gotta wait to see if I get a crew. Structure firefighting, you need a minimum of three guys,” he said.

Before anyone could arrive at the station, first responders arriving at Perrytown Place determined a contractor accidentally set off the alarm and the need for responders passed.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

The chief says he’s seen a steady decline in the ranks of his department in his 50 years there.

“I show a membership roster of 30 members. I actually have 10 people I can count on if we did have a fire situation,” Hillenbrand said.

According to a new report, the number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania has dropped from 300,000 in the 1970s to only 38,000 today.

So when a call goes out, Hillenbrand waits.

“I usually average three to four. Four is a luxury,” he says.

Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire Chief Daryl Jones says timing is crucial.

“Every minute can compound the fire, it grows exponentially,” said Chief Jones.

Pittsburgh firefighters sometimes leave the city limits to back up understaffed VFD companies.

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At the Allegheny County 911 center, Emergency Management Coordinator Chief Matt Brown says they are acutely aware of the VFD staffing challenges.

“That’s why we always have to have a back-up, to the back-up, to the back-up in our system, because if they are tied up or can’t get a crew, we have to provide that same service as timely as we possibly can,” Chief Brown said.

Across the board, volunteer fire companies face difficulties attracting and holding recruits.

Chief Hillenbrand says, “Somebody comes up here to join, and they say, ‘I want to help out and I’ll give you as much time as I can.’”

But then they are faced with the unpaid hours of training needed.

“You’re probably talking 240 to 250 hours,” says Chief Hillenbrand.

Chief Jones says there is no alternative.

“It’s a huge commitment, but it also brings about the professionalism that is needed in the fire service,” he said.

But those hours are on top of answering calls and fundraising.

“People just don’t have the time to do that kind of stuff anymore,” Chief Hillenbrand says.

So the new report recommends offering incentives:

  • Offer Tax Credits
  • High School and College Credit
  • Free Tuition to Community Colleges and Universities
  • Student Housing for Volunteers
  • College forgiveness loans
  • Fund Basic Training

Chief Jones, who was on the committee that drafted the recommendations, says, “I don’t know if they will work, but it was our attempt to reach out to do something to try to bring this back. I don’t know what the answers are.”

Allegheny County already offers tuition-free education at CCAC to anyone who will make a five-year commitment to be a volunteer firefighter. The county allows for up to 200 volunteers a year, but has never filled the program.

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The problem of the dwindling ranks of volunteer firefighters is not new and is only getting worse. If the recruiting solution doesn’t work, more municipalities may find themselves needing to go to paid firefighters, and the resulting tax increases needed to cover the costs.