‘The volunteer model in Pa. just doesn’t work’: COVID-related recruitment issues put suburban firefighting in the crosshairs

Firefighter coats are lined up, with an ambulance in the background

Although there is a nationwide shortage of volunteer firefighters, it is "pronounced in Pennsylvania," according to Steve Hirsch, chairman of the National Volunteer Firefighting Council. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

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Even before the pandemic, Pennsylvania was facing an extreme shortage of volunteer firefighters. According to a state legislative report, there were 300,000 volunteers during the 1970s. By 2018, that number had dwindled to 38,000.

“Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen a decline in the number of volunteer firefighters on a national basis. … And, of course, it seems like it’s very pronounced in Pennsylvania,” said Steve Hirsch, chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council.

Recently, membership shortages have caused fire companies in Bucks and Delaware counties to merge and consolidate. In Montgomery County, one volunteer fire company is facing closure altogether.

On Dec. 16, the Cheltenham Township Board of Commissioners voted to decertify the Ogontz Fire Company as one of the five volunteer squads serving the municipality, effective immediately — after 128 years of service.

The township cited recent studies regarding its fire infrastructure and a recommendation from the fire marshal that said the company had failed to meet requirements for an active firefighting force of at least 20 members and a qualified chief. Though the Ogontz Fire Company was aware of those issues and working to solve them, members were caught off guard by the closure decision.

“It went into place that night. And we were unaware that it was even going to be up for discussion. It wasn’t anything we were expecting,” said Art Gordon, president of the Ogontz Fire Company.

Though the fire company can no longer respond to calls, the order to close won’t be official until March 17. Since December, the company’s firefighters have rallied to meet both requirements. Gordon said it now has a force of 22 and a qualified chief, but the township hasn’t budged.

In an open letter to residents of Cheltenham, township manager Robert Zienkowski said that the company was asked throughout 2020 to provide a plan to address the problems but never did.

In 1736, Benjamin Franklin founded the Union Fire Company, and Philadelphia became the birthplace of volunteer firefighting. The city has long since shifted entirely to a career force, but the vast majority of firefighters in Montgomery County are volunteers.

“There are no fire departments in Montgomery County that are 100% career, such as what you would see in the city of Philadelphia, where there’s no volunteers whatsoever. Every department here in Montgomery County uses volunteer firefighters to some extent,” said Todd Stieritz, public affairs coordinator for the county’s Department of Public Safety.

With more than 37,000 residents, Cheltenham is Montgomery County’s third most populous municipality. It is still served by the Cheltenham Fire Company, the Glenside Fire Company, the La Mott Fire Company, and the Elkins Park Fire Company, which together make up the all-volunteer Cheltenham Township Fire Department.

In August, a five-year strategic financial management report put several of Cheltenham’s services under the microscope. It recommended that the township “evaluate opportunities for efficiencies” once a fire study was completed in November.

The Cheltenham Township fire department analysis found widespread volunteer shortages and redundancies in coverage at the companies, and offered recommendations including the hiring of a municipal fire chief and the association of the La Mott, Elkins Park, and Ogontz stations. According to the analysis, an association is an “agreement of two or more companies to combine and administer similar activities through an umbrella organization.”

The township chose to decertify the Ogontz Fire Company instead.

Art Gordon stands inside a fire station
Art Gordon has started a social media and a lawn sign campaign to get the company certified once more. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

“We understand the concern,” fire company president Art Gordon said. “But we don’t understand the bold move of making this decision, one: during a pandemic, when you need every volunteer you can get. And then secondly: because of the pandemic, it’s not easy to recruit new members.”

According to Gordon, even some members of his crew, who had relatives with preexisting conditions, did not feel comfortable responding to calls because of COVID-19. From last March to July, Ogontz did not get a single new recruit.

The township has told the members of Ogontz they could join the other companies, but Gordon said that for many of the experienced firefighters, this is home and will likely be their final stop.

Even for newer members like Teddy Eaton, who recently moved to the United States from Jamaica and has been with the fire company since the late summer, Ogontz is home.

“I don’t see a next firefighting department where I would want to join right now, because I already feel at home,” Eaton said. “So if I really go to a different firefighting department, it’s like I’m gonna start back from scratch.”

Now that Ogontz has met all the township’s requirements, Gordon wants the commissioners to take a second look at the decision. The fire company even sought an injunction, which was denied, to get the township to reconsider.

“If there’s going to be a review of the study and contemplation of possibly merging companies or forming an association of joint command, we should be part of that,” Gordon said. “And we would be happy to be part of that. But we can only do that when we have a seat at the table. Not after you’ve pushed us away from the table.”

WHYY News reached out several times to Cheltenham Township for comment and received no response.

Thomas Prociuk, the new chief, is a career firefighter in Bensalem, Bucks County. He grew up in Cheltenham, though, and was even once a member of the Ogontz Fire Company. He didn’t hesitate to help out when he heard it had troubles.

He believes that the Ogontz company’s record speaks for itself. There were no “scratches” in 2020, according to Prociuk. That means that every time the company was called on, Ogontz was able to get a truck on the road.

“How do you close a firehouse that’s getting a truck out every time it’s dispatched?” Prociuk asked.

Thomas Prociuk stands inside a fire station
Thomas Prociuk is the new chief of the Ogontz Fire Company. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

Fighting fires, and the pandemic

There are about 90 different fire agencies in Montgomery County, all of which use volunteer firefighters in some capacity.

“Volunteer firefighting was very popular in communities, particularly in suburban areas such as Montgomery County, where many people were single-income households where there was one parent working and one parent staying home with the kids, where people could afford on one income to raise a family in the suburbs,” said Stieritz, of the county’s Department of Public Safety.

But that changed over the past few decades. And today, COVID is doing even more to affect recruitment.

“Colleagues of mine from across the state who give exams and hire firefighters, some of them have canceled their firefighters tests. Because they had zero people apply,” said Thomas O’Donnell, chief of the Norristown Fire Department.

The Norristown department, consisting of four fire stations, has both paid and volunteer firefighters. O’Donnell said he has noticed a troubling trend in the region as both volunteers and resources run dry.

“So when I started in a fire department 30-plus years ago, very seldom did we leave the community that we served to assist another department because they had a lot of resources. Today, those emergency service units are crossing the political boundaries every day to help one another out,” he said.

In Lower Merion, Chief Fire Officer Chas McGarvey leads the township’s seven fire companies. In total, there are more than 175 volunteer firefighters and 35 career firefighters. He has seen firsthand how COVID is putting an extra burden on fire services. In fact, virus exposure put the brakes on one of his stations.

“So, we had to shut down the operation until we got everybody tested,” McGarvey said.

His department is lucky to have the support of the township’s commissioners, McGarvey said, but firefighters are having fundraising issues.

A different role, and an uncertain one

Derrick Sawyer is the chief of the Upper Darby Township Fire Department in Delaware County. Comprising five companies, the department also employs both career and volunteer firefighters.

Sawyer said COVID has not influenced recruitment much — because the department was already having issues in that area. But he and the other fire chiefs interviewed for this article agreed the firefighter’s role has changed.

“Your firefighters aren’t just responding to fires,” he said. “They respond to fires and respond to shootings, accidents, hazardous material spills… when you have these snowstorms, they have to respond to snowstorms, rainstorms.”

Fire departments — or “all-hazards departments,” as O’Donnell refers to them — are seeing an increase in calls despite a decline in building-fire responses. In Cheltenham, for example, false alarms made up nearly half of all fire calls in 2019.

With departments stretched thin, the very practice of volunteer firefighting is being called into question.

“The volunteer model in Pennsylvania just doesn’t work,” O’Donnell said.

Of course, the question of paying a vast corps of now-unpaid firefighters is an even bigger one.

Two-thirds of the U.S. landmass is protected by volunteers, said Hirsch, of the National Volunteer Firefighters Council. He is a fire chief at the Sheridan Fire Department in rural Kansas.

“There are communities that are trying to do fire service with volunteers that probably need career staff,” Hirsch said.

To boost volunteer membership, Hirsch pointed to incentives like $15-per-call stipends, scholarships, and property tax abatements.

But incentives like these aren’t translating to increased membership in Pennsylvania, according to Norristown Fire Chief O’Donnell.

“Communities that are all-volunteer today, my hat’s off to them. I don’t know how they’re still doing their service,” he said. “I’m fortunate enough in Norristown, where our elected officials have seen the need and have hired firefighters.”

Before it was decertified, Cheltenham’s Ogontz Fire Company looked into a stipend program to retain firefighters and had plans to hire two daytime positions, according to Gordon, the company’s president. In the long term, Prociuk, Ogontz’s new chief, believes that municipalities should pay a fair wage to the people risking their lives in burning buildings.

“Now, again, there’s a volunteer crisis, everybody needs to realize that eventually you’re gonna have to pay for this job to get done,” Prociuk said.

Stieritz, of Montco’s Department of Public Safety, said he doesn’t think COVID-19 “or anything else really will destroy the volunteer fire service.”

“The desire to volunteer and especially as a firefighter runs deep in many communities and many families and many individuals. And the pandemic is not going to stop that,” said Stieritz. “I think that with that said, it would be foolish of one to speculate that the volunteer fire service will be able to exist in its current state forever.”

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