The (Very) Few and the Proud: The Crisis of Vanishing Firefighters

October 6, 2017 5:51 pm0 commentsViews: 169
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A Firefighter searches for possible survivors

Jerry Barton has served as a volunteer firefighter in Bucks County for most of his life. “I started at Langhorne Fire Company as a teenager,” he recalls. “My Dad was a firefighter there. I remember riding to fires on top of the truck, with my heart pounding and the flashing lights right in my eyes. It was a thrill.”

But today, far fewer young people are experiencing anything similar. “Back then,” said Mr. Barton, “kids didn’t have cell phones or Xbox. There were not so many things competing for a young person’s attention.”

Not just in Bucks County but across the United States, there is a dangerous shortage of volunteer firefighters. In Pennsylvania, for example, the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped over 75% in the past 40 years. (There are now about 72,000 volunteer firefighters in PA versus some 300,000 in the mid-1970’s.)

Apart from the distractions mentioned by Mr. Barton, there are other reasons. An August 2014 article in the New York Times listed some of them, including the greatly increased costs of equipping and running a firehouse. A single breathing apparatus, for instance, now costs over $5000; and a fire engine costs about $400,000 more than it did in the 1980’s. As a result, many firefighters have had to spend more time fundraising than training or responding to emergency calls.

In addition, the training requirements have become more time-consuming. “Federal standards enacted to save firefighters’ lives have unintentionally created a barrier for volunteer service,” according to the NYT article.

The situation is critical because even as their numbers dwindle, volunteer firefighters have become increasingly vital in most American communities — and not just for fighting fires. In fact, only about 5% of emergency calls that come in to the typical American volunteer firehouse are fire-related. Medical emergencies and auto accidents have skyrocketed in the past 30 years and account for the vast majority of calls. In many areas, volunteer firefighters have also assumed responsibilities for dealing with hazardous material spills and even terrorist attacks.

The all-around usefulness of volunteer firefighters has saved not only lives but money; nearly $140 billion per year for local governments across the U.S., as noted in the Times article.

Many states have experimented with ways to stem the attrition. New York State grants property tax abatements to volunteers, for instance, and New Jersey offers taxpayer-subsidized pensions, life insurance benefits and college tuition assistance.

Closer to home, the Bucks County Fire Chiefs and Firefighters Association’s Recruitment Committee has launched an intensive effort in recent years to get the message out through a comprehensive marketing campaign with a core message: Save, Protect, Volunteer., an informational website for Bucks County’s current and would-be firefighters, lists some of the benefits that come with volunteering. Among them: free training, some of which may count for college credits; working as part of a team and building lasting relationships and friendships; cultivating new skills that can help in all facets of your life and prepare you for a possible new career; getting your hands dirty and being in the middle of the excitement; and the satisfaction of knowing you are an important part of keeping your family and friends safe.

Volunteer firefighters must be at least 18 years old. However, most fire companies have programs available for volunteers under the age of 18 to begin learning the basics of firefighting.

Persons who are interested in joining but prefer not to take part in actual firefighting are also welcome.  If you are looking to volunteer but are apprehensive about fighting a fire, there are still plenty of other options for you to choose from. EMS units, fire police service, the Women’s Auxiliary League and other administrative opportunities are available, and all equally help keep your community safe.


Please visit or to volunteer or find more information.

NOTE that October is National Fire Prevention Month. Check with your nearest fire company to see what events or open houses they may be sponsoring.

—Adapted from a Leader article first published in October 2014.