Wanted: Physically fit adult men and women. Willing to give up vacation time and time away from your families to obtain state-mandated firefighting skills – at your own expense. Also must be agreeable to spending untold hours annually fundraising. And, oh yes, must be willing to accept risk-filled assignments to assist your neighbors in times of emergencies at any time day or night.

So is the life of a volunteer firefighter.

We admire and respect these folks. Their chief reward is little more than self-satisfaction.  

Is it any wonder that the plight of Pennsylvania’s volunteer firefighting system continues in a downward spiral? That’s what officials from several western Pennsylvania communities were told last week.

While unnerving, the news is not surprising. Problems and possible solutions have been well documented and bandied about for years with seemingly little accomplished from a corrections perspective.

“The most telling fact from the ‘Pennsylvania Burning’ report is that there were 300,000 volunteers involved with the Pennsylvania fire service in 1977. Today, I would estimate that number is closer to 50,000 to 60,000,” Edward Mann, state fire commissioner, told those attending a public hearing in North Huntingdon, Westmoreland County.

His comments were reported by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Bottom line, Mann said at a hearing of the state House Majority Policy Committee, was that fire departments need to find more ways to recruit and maintain active volunteers.

We’ve long heard that cry from volunteer fire officials in our region, many whose companies have wisely merged with neighboring communities. The alter-native was to shut down totally.

It’s scary to realize that for many families, responders one day soon may be coming from dozens of miles away.

Melvin Benamati of Armagh, president of the Indiana County Fire Chiefs Association, said the 24 fire departments in his county often struggle to find crews to man trucks on weekdays when many firefighters are at work.

“We need manpower. Most of our departments are running with just 15 people who are active,” Benamati said.

There are departments in Cambria and Somerset counties, and no doubt in many others, who respond to emergencies with half that number.

Benamati and other firefighters urged legislators to provide departments with incentives – tax or vehicle registration exemptions or education credits – to attract new firefighters and retain current ones.

That’s something we’ve strongly supported for many years.

Retirement and insurance plans also have been suggested.

On the other side of the coin, state Rep. Rick Saccone of Jefferson Hills in Allegheny County, questioned firefighters about taxpayers’ complaints that departments try to avoid consolidating services and often purchase duplicate equipment.

Good points indeed, although something we believe happens much less frequently today than in the past – at least in our region.

Dwindling manpower and finances for volunteer companies are problems that concern all of us, or at least should.

We continue to stress that these issues need to be addressed seriously by our Legislature – now rather than later.

The alternative to community volunteer fire companies is for taxpayers to be strapped shelling out more tax dollars to finance paid departments.

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