Fire, EMS volunteers in short supply, chiefs say08/29/2023 01:31PM ● By Richard Gaw
Photo by Richard L. Gaw Representatives from the Kennett, Longwood and Po-Mar-Lin fire companies held a town hall on Aug. 24 to discuss issues related to how they administer emergency services throughout the community. Pictured left to right are A.J. McCarthy, chief of the Longwood Fire Company; Rick Franks, assistant chief of the Kennett Fire Company; Matt Eick, assistant chief of EMS for the Longwood Fire Company; and Stephen Nuse, assistant chief and president of the Po-Mar-Lin Fire Company.
By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer
Seated side-by-side at the far right of the Red Clay Room on Aug. 24, row after row of volunteers from three area fire and EMS companies attended the first of two Kennett Fire & EMS Town Hall meetings.
Throughout the meeting, a few in the audience of 100 publicly thanked them for their service and all received accolades for their selfless dedication from their supervisors. They were there in full force, but in keeping with a national trend, there were not enough of them.
Representatives from the Kennett, Longwood and Po-Mar-Lin fire departments reported that the number of volunteers currently serving their units is well below their desired volume.
Their remarks were part of a presentation that provided an overview of emergency services to the 56-square-mile radius in the municipalities that make up the Kennett Fire & EMS Commission. Those chairing the event were A.J. McCarthy, chief of the Longwood Fire Company; Rick Franks, assistant chief of the Kennett Fire Company; Stephen Nuse, assistant chief and president of the Po-Mar-Lin Fire Company; and Matt Eick, assistant chief of EMS for the Longwood Fire Company.
Reflecting on those dwindling numbers, Franks said key factors contributing to the decline of volunteers point to the rising economic pressures of maintaining a household, higher standards for becoming a volunteer firefighter and a flatline of financial support.
“Previously, households were taken care of by one income, meaning there was a lot of extra time for people to do things such as volunteer at fire houses,” he said. “Now, a lot of houses are two-income, leaving a lot less time to volunteer. In addition, the standards and training requirements have continued to increase. For example, if you are coming in as a rookie firefighter, there is a 250-hour course, followed by a 100-hour course, and a rescue program which is about 50 [hours.]
“You will need about 400 hours of service just to become a basic, entry-level firefighter, which is a lot to ask someone nowadays to give up in order to volunteer their time.”
Nuse estimated that the Po-Mar-Lin Fire Company has 25 active volunteers, while McCarthy and Franks estimated that there are about 40 active volunteers at Kennett and Longwood.
“You can’t put a number on how many volunteers we would desire to have, because there’s so much wear and tear on everyone who is already there,” Nuse said. “If you [wished for] 100 or 150 volunteers, that still would not be enough.”
“At this point, I would just take ten people who would choose to stay,” McCarthy said. “Too often, we invest a lot of money and time to train them, and after a year or two in they realize that [being a volunteer] is very burdensome.”
The fight to recruit – and retain -- volunteer firefighters isn’t just being felt at Kennett, Longwood and Po-Mar-Lin. According to statistics provided by the National Volunteer Fire Council, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. continues to decline dramatically, from 800,000 in 1984 to 676,000 as recently as 2020 – all while the volume of service calls to these agencies has skyrocketed 30 percent. The three departments respond to 3,500 EMS calls in the coverage zone on a yearly basis.
In Pennsylvania, the estimated number of volunteer firefighters is 30,000, compared to 1975, when there were 360,000 serving in the commonwealth.
While inventing creative measures to recruit volunteers such as incentive programs is high on the priority list of the three local fire and EMS companies, it remains an uphill climb.
“The thing that we’re all trying to overcome is that volunteers are a dying breed,” McCarthy said. “It’s been well-studied in Pennsylvania for probably the last 30 or 40 years, and unfortunately, no one is doing anything about it at any level.”
‘Sitting down at a table together’
Against the backdrop of this growing reality, the officers said that the 2017 formation of the Kennett Fire & EMS Commission has allowed all three agencies to combine their resources in a way that has positively impacted the way emergency services are administered throughout the region.
The impact of the Commission, McCarthy said, has created more reliable funding streams; streamlined EMS operations; improved communication with the municipalities the Commission serves; inspired long-term capital planning concepts; and created a regionalized approach to fire and EMS services that has resulted in a partnership between the three agencies.
A second Kennett Fire & EMS town hall will be held on Sept. 14 beginning at 7 p.m. at the Red Clay Room. Topics expected to be covered will be fire and EMS service in Kennett Square Borough, and the potential impacts of the Kennett Borough’s recent decision to leave the Kennett Area Fire & EMS Commission at the end of the year.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].