Volunteer Firefighters Needed on Main Line

Photo by Tessa Marie Pictures

Local firefighting companies have thrived over the last 40 years, but volunteer firefighters on the Main Line are in decline.

Charles J McGarvey Sr. raised $5 to join the Bryn Mawr Fire Company in 1978. Over the four decades since establishing “social” membership, McGarvey rose to become the chief firefighter of Lower Merion Township. Last March, he retired from his post to become the state’s acting fire commissioner.

In the past, many calls were handled by one company. “Recruiting is basically word of mouth, or you have family members in the fire company,” says McGarvey. “Today, we need to do more to engage people. And we didn’t win the battle.”

Acting state fire commissioner Charles McGarvey

Firefighting is the rare municipal service that relies on volunteers. Statewide, the numbers have continued to decline—from about 300,000 in the 1970s to 60,000 in the early 2000s to 38,000 in 2018. These are the most recent statistics available from the Pennsylvania Fire & Emergency Services Institute, and it appears that there are no improvements over the last five years. “People are not joining for life anymore,” said Todd Stieritz, public affairs coordinator for the Montgomery County Department of Public Safety.

There was a time when the whole family would volunteer. “But that’s not happening anymore,” said Dan Kincade, head of the Bryn Mawr Fire Company.

Fire Chief Bryn Mawr And Kincade

Today, recruitment involves a complex web of social media campaigns, financial and other incentives, and efforts to engage and retain younger firefighters. The major breakthrough came in 2018 with a $449,000 four-year grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that provided $50,000 towards tuition reimbursement for volunteer firefighters and $62,350 for a media marketing campaign. “It used to be that fire companies had waiting lists,” said Harry Jarin of the township recruitment and retention committee. “We had to go out and recruit the first time.”

Like every township in the state, Lower Merion has its own set of problems to deal with, some of which are unique.

Scott Friedman has volunteered as an emergency medical technician in his native Colorado. So when he moved east four years ago for professional reasons it seemed a natural choice to become a volunteer firefighter at Bala Cynwyd. There’s an unusual problem at Bala: Volunteer training opportunities are traditionally offered on Saturday—the Sabbath for its large Orthodox Jewish community.

An Orthodox Jew himself, Friedman works with the county fire academy to give week-long classes at the Bala Cynwyd Union Fire Association. Friedman estimates that, of the company’s 25-30 volunteers, perhaps nine were devout Jews. “Emergency response is a challenge,” he said. “But Jewish law is very clear that when your life is at stake, you do what you need to do. After you respond, you respond.

The estimated cost of paying, equipping, training, and supporting professional firefighters is as high as $100,000 a year. Support for voluntary partners is a small part of that. And when one considers that a company like Bryn Mawr has three paid firefighters and 40 volunteers, the importance of fundraising is obvious. The Main Line Chamber of Commerce Emergency Responders Scholarship Program expects to raise an all-time high of $70,000 this year. It’s a bittersweet story: This scholarship is dedicated to two firefighters who lost their lives on the job and another who died shortly after the fire. “This is for those who showed up on our worst day,” said MLCC president Bernard Dagenais.

For decades, state voluntary firefighting companies have tried to recruit members as young as 14 years old. They have stepped up their efforts in recent years, providing college scholarships, other incentives, and even housing. Brady McHale “fell into” volunteer firefighting at the age of 14. The Gladwyne Fire Company was conducting drills on a nearby street, and one of the firefighters approached her. “I didn’t even drive a car,” he recalls. “My parents took me to the night drill.”

Now 29 years old and a graduate of Penn State University, McHale is director of public relations for the Radnor Police Department. He also served on the recruitment and retention committee of Lower Merion City, which served the seven local Main Line fire stations. He remained a volunteer firefighter, working about 12 hours a week. He took up residence at Gladwyne Fire Station in 2013, the first volunteer in the area.

For David Randazzo, the house was a subsidized home near the company’s Bryn Mawr fire station. A systems analyst at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, he transferred there as a graduate student in computer engineering at Villanova University. This growing trend among firefighting companies is an effective recruiting tool that makes it easier for volunteers to respond to calls.

Randazzo moved into the house when the university closed due to COVID. He made nearly half of the company’s 478 calls last year—ranging from false alarms to active fires. “What influenced me was community relations, learning life skills and acting in emergency situations,” he said. “Friendship [of the firehouse] also means a lot to me.”

In the fall of 2021, the Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner’s Office seeks to assist the state’s approximately 2,500 firefighting companies by appointing Tracie Young-Brungard as its first-ever recruitment and retention administrator. Young-Brungard has been out in the community trying to figure out what works and cataloging best practices.

At the end of last year, the governor was expected to sign a bill allowing those aged 17 to be trained to become fully certified – even if they can’t actually go to the scene of a fire until they turn 18. year. McGarvey stressed the need to get a completely accurate first count from firefighters working in the state. Some are social members who don’t put out fires, while others are on the rosters of some companies.

At the federal level, President Joe Biden appointed Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell as US fire administrator in October 2021. Moore-Merrell sees efforts to maintain a volunteer fire force as “building a rug of community.” With that in mind, training techniques for recruits need to reflect the learning styles of different populations from the past. “They grew up in the age of virtual reality,” he said, adding that it was also a problem in the military.

Moore-Merrell notes that the International Firefighters Association has created a curriculum on behavioral health for firefighters, along with treatment facilities for treating post-traumatic stress disorder in firefighters and paramedics. “We have to help them build mental resilience,” he said.

Sam Shaffer was the youngest member of the Belmont Hills Fire Company when he joined at the age of 14. In the early hours of July 24, 2021, on the Schuylkill Expressway in Lower Merion Township, a drunk driver ran over his fire crew, crashing into Shaffer, then 17 years old, and two older firefighters. One of them, Thomas Royds, died of a heart attack shortly thereafter.

Shaffer and firefighter Alex Fischer were critically injured. Shaffer spent three days in ICU with head and knee injuries. Now a 19-year-old freshman at Neumann University, he still suffers from some of the lingering effects of his injuries. But the ordeal didn’t discourage him from volunteering at the fire station. “I just got back in the truck,” he said. “That’s how you pay back the people who lost their lives.”

Since the accident, Shaffer has actually helped convince several young people to join the firefighting program. “It opens their eyes to what they can do to serve society,” he said.

Related: Wayne’s Todd Harrity Takes Squash World by Storm

Source link

You May Also Like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *