Charles J. McGarvey Sr. plunked down $5 to join Bryn Mawr Fire Company in 1978. Over the more than four decades since establishing his “social” membership, McGarvey rose to chief fire marshal of Lower Merion Township. This past March, he retired from his post to become acting state fire commissioner.
Back in the day, many calls were handled by a single company. “Recruiting was basically done by word of mouth, or you had a family member in the fire company,” McGarvey says. “Today, we need to do a lot more to get people involved. And we’re not winning the battle.”
Firefighting is that rare municipal service that relies on volunteers. Statewide, those numbers have been steadily declining—from about 300,000 in the 1970s to 60,000 in the early 2000s to 38,000 in 2018. These are the latest statistics available from the Pennsylvania Fire & Emergency Services Institute, and it’s unlikely there’s been any improvement over the past five years. “People don’t join for life anymore,” says Todd Stieritz, public affairs coordinator for the Montgomery County Department of Public Safety.
There was a time when whole families would volunteer. “But that doesn’t happen anymore,” says Dan Kincade, Bryn Mawr Fire Company’s chief.
These days, recruiting involves a complex web of social media campaigns, financial and other incentives and attempts to involve and retain younger firefighters. A major breakthrough came in 2018 with a four-year, $449,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that’s provided $50,000 in college tuition reimbursements for volunteer firefighters and $62,350 for a media marketing campaign. “Fire companies used to have waiting lists,” says Harry Jarin of the township’s recruitment and retention committee. “We’re having to go out and recruit for the first time.”
Like every township in the state, Lower Merion has its own set of issues to contend with, some of them unique.
Scott Friedman had 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 in Bala Cynwyd. There’s an unusual problem in Bala: Volunteer training opportunities are traditionally offered on Saturdays—Sabbath for its large Orthodox Jewish community.
Himself an Orthodox Jew, Friedman worked with area fire academies to provide classes during the week at the Bala Cynwyd’s Union Fire Association. Friedman estimates that, of the company’s 25-30 volunteers, maybe nine are observant Jews. “Emergency response is a challenge,” he says. “But Jewish law is very clear that when life is at stake, you do what you need to do. Once you’re responding, you’re responding.”
The estimated cost of what it takes to pay, equip, train and support a professional firefighter is up to $100,000 a year. Support for a volunteer counterpart is a fraction of that. And when one considers that a company like Bryn Mawr has three paid firefighters and 40 volunteers, the importance of fundraising is apparent. 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: The scholarships are dedicated to two firefighters who lost their lives on the job and another who died shortly after a fire. “It‘s for those who show up on our worst day,” says MLCC president Bernard Dagenais.
For decades, the state’s volunteer fire companies have tried to recruit members as young as 14. They’ve stepped up their efforts in recent years, providing college scholarships, other incentives and even places to live. Brady McHale “fell into” volunteer firefighting at age 14. Gladwyne Fire Company was doing a drill on a street near where he lived, and one of the firefighters approached him. “I didn’t even drive a car,” he recalls. “My parents drove me to drill nights.”
Now 29 and a graduate of Penn State University, McHale is community relations director for the Radnor Police Department. He also serves on Lower Merion Township’s recruitment and retention committee, which serves the Main Line’s seven local fire stations. He remains a volunteer firefighter, putting in some 12 hours a week. He lived at Gladwyne Fire Station in 2013, the first such volunteer in the area.
For David Randazzo, home is a subsidized house near the Bryn Mawr fire station that’s owned by the company. A systems analyst at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, he moved there as a graduate student in computer engineering at Villanova University. This growing trend among fire companies is an effective recruiting tool that makes it easier for the volunteers to respond to calls.
Randazzo moved into the house when the university shut down due to COVID. He made almost half the company’s 478 calls last year—everything from false alarms to active fires. “What’s impacted me is the connection with the community, learning life skills and acting in emergency situations,” he says. “The camaraderie [of the firehouse] has meant a lot to me too.”
In the fall of 2021, the Office of the Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner sought to help the state’s estimated 2,500 fire companies by appointing Tracie Young-Brungard its first-ever administrator of recruitment and retention. Young-Brungard has been going out into the community, trying to find out what works and building a catalogue of best practices.
As of late last year, the governor was expected to sign legislation allowing those as young as 17 to be trained for full certification—even if they can’t actually go to a live fire scene until they hit 18. That speeds the process by a year. McGarvey emphasizes the need for getting the first truly accurate count of working firefighters in the state. Some are social members who don’t fight fires, while others are on rosters for several companies.
On the federal level, President Joe Biden appointed Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell as U.S. fire administrator in October 2021. Moore-Merrell sees the efforts to maintain the volunteer firefighting force as “building the tapestry of the community.” With that in mind, training techniques for recruits need to reflect the learning styles of a population different from that of the past. “They’ve grown up in a time of virtual reality,” she says, adding that it’s also an issue in the military.
Moore-Merrell notes that the International Association of Firefighters has created a curriculum on behavioral health for firefighters, along with a treatment facility to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder in firefighters and paramedics. “We have to help them build mental resilience,” she says.
Sam Shaffer was Belmont Hills Fire Company’s youngest member when he joined at 14. In the early morning hours of July 24, 2021, on the Schuylkill Expressway in Lower Merion Township, a drunk driver crashed into his fire crew, hitting Shaffer, then 17, and two older firefighters. One of them, Thomas Royds, died of a heart attack shortly thereafter.
Shaffer and firefighter Alex Fischer were both seriously hurt. Shaffer spent three days in the ICU with head and knee injuries. Now a 19-year-old freshman at Neumann University, he still suffers some lingering effects from his injuries. But the ordeal has done nothing to sour him on volunteering at the fire station. “I just got back on the truck,” he says. “That’s how you pay back the guys who lost their lives.”
Since the accident, Shaffer has actually helped convince several young people to enter the firefighting program. “It opened their eyes to what they can do to serve the community,” he says.
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