What does it take to be a volunteer firefighter in 2021?
Hours upon hours of intensive training. The bravery to charge into suffocating smoke and burning buildings.
And for firefighters at volunteer squads throughout the suburbs, add the ability to sell Christmas trees.
Early Saturday morning in Lower Merion Township, the Gladwyne Fire Company was active on the sales floor, so to speak, talking community members through the available selection, trimming branches, and loading trees on top of cars.
Meanwhile, Rowdy, the firehouse Dalmatian, took his job as greeter seriously as the annual holiday enterprise brought out a steady flow of families looking for that perfect tree. It’s a full-service deal that comes with the option of homemade wreaths, delivery, even setup.
“So this year, we had 1,200 trees that were delivered the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Our first day was the day after Thanksgiving, where we went online selling, and we’re a week into it. And we’re about halfway through those trees,” said Andy Block, deputy chief of operations.
The fire company has been advertising on social media, trying to spread the word. Spreading holiday cheer is a benefit, but it’s not what drives the tree sale.
That, of course, would be the indispensable funding they bring. Outside the fire company’s general mail fundraising drive, the Christmas tree sales offer another opportunity for the community to support its firefighting force.
“This actually supplements what the firefighters do. So this helps out at the end of the year, and basically, it helps us to promote different social programs within the fire company and the community itself,” Block said.
Kyle Hurtado, of Bryn Mawr, brought the whole family out Saturday. Though this was her first time coming to the firehouse for a Christmas tree, her cousin works at the station, and she thought it would be a good idea to show support.
“I was really pleased. I had heard that there was a tree shortage this year. So we actually drove by a couple spots, but it looked like slim pickings. So we were pleasantly surprised when we pulled up and found an awesome tree on the first shot,” Hurtado said.
Emily and Michael Lamb, of Villanova, have been picking up a tree from the firehouse for 10 years. The only thing different about this year’s trip is that they were without the kids.
“They’re a little bit older. One is away at college, and one chose to stay in bed this morning. The [firefighters] are always really nice. And the trees are really nice,” Emily Lamb said.
They felt extra motivation to support the firehouse this year.
“They lost two people this year: One in a house fire, and one in an accident on the freeway. So it was extra good to come out and support them,” Michael Lamb said.
When a tree sale is more than just a tree sale
Gladwyne firefighter Sean Meals, a sophomore at Villanova University, said the Christmas tree sales at the firehouse can also serve another vital purpose.
“One of the main things is when people come in, they see the firehouse, we actually get a lot of people who are interested in becoming volunteers just simply by being here and seeing what it’s like,” Meals said.
That’s no small thing. Fire companies in Pennsylvania are struggling with a severe shortage of volunteers. According to a state legislative report, there were 300,000 volunteers during the 1970s and just 38,000 in 2018. The number continues to shrink.
Another volunteer squad in Montgomery County, the Ogontz Fire Company, was forced to end its service to the community after the Cheltenham Township Commissioners voted to decertify it in February of this year, citing a shortage of active firefighters.
The Ogontz company mounted — and still maintains — a campaign to stay open, but for now remains on the outside looking in. The conclusion reached by some in the profession is that the volunteer model is insufficient, especially with an already underfunded service.
In November, Lower Merion Township officials put forth a 100% property tax credit for qualifying volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel, as a lure to keep them.
Lower Merion’s firefighting force consists of seven companies, including Gladwyne, made up of about 25 career personnel and 150 volunteers. Chas McGarvey, chief fire officer for the township, said he supports the tax credit.
“I think it shows how we feel about our volunteers, and them coming out to do what they do. Lower Merion had a really tough year this year, where we lost two firefighters. And I think the commissioners really wanted to send a message to our volunteers of how they felt about them for all that they do for us,” McGarvey said.
He said every fire department that utilizes volunteers is struggling, so he hopes the tax credit will go a long way in retaining talent. Gladwyne is not immune to the woes, and in an area where housing prices are so high, most of the volunteers may not reap the benefit because they don’t own houses in Lower Merion.
Luckily, Block said, Gladwyne has other initiatives that he believes have helped stop the exodus. The fire company pays for training costs and offers some stipends. It has subsidized housing in an apartment building and there are even firefighters with living quarters at the station.
“We have an engine and a ladder that we can have on the street with nine firefighters within two to three minutes because of what we’ve done with these initiatives,” Block said.
The alternative to such out-of-the-box thinking is not a good one, McGarvey said.
“If we don’t start doing stuff now for them, then unfortunately, the volunteer system is gonna go away and it’s going to cost taxpayers more money, because you’re gonna have to hire people,” McGarvey said.
In another part of Montgomery County …
Like the Gladwyne Fire Company, members of the McKinley Fire Company in Abington Township also spent Saturday morning selling Christmas trees.
They had just gotten a shipment of 250 to sell — and the proceeds will help a lot.
“It basically goes into anything that we need for our apparatus, going to tools or whatever we need to help the community,” said firefighter Brendan Tracey.
McKinley has not escaped the volunteer shortage unscathed.
“We’ve been severely impacted in the past couple of years. I feel like every volunteer company has been severely impacted, but it’s really rough. It’s really rough to find people that will take time out of their day and actually do a side job like this,” Tracey said. “We try to bond with the community more and get as many young people in as we can, hopefully in the future join up and bring those numbers back up to what we want them to be.”
Evan Metz has been working with the McKinley company for just under a year after seeing a good friend of his post pictures about his job as a firefighter.
“If you have time, come volunteer here,” Metz said. “We need you.”
Saturdays just got more interesting.