“Officials discuss funding, safety concerns.”
By DAVID O’CONNOR, Staff Writer – Lancaster Intelligencer Journal/New Era
“When Duane Ober joined Manheim’s fire company in 1988, the department averaged 30 to 40 firefighters responding when a fire call came.
“‘That was for each call,’ said the former Manheim fire chief and current assistant chief, now president of the Lancaster County Fire Chiefs Association.
“‘Now, we average around 10 guys a call.’
“And that steady, continuing drop in the number of volunteer firefighters is being felt across the Garden Spot just like it is across Pennsylvania, several local fire leaders said.
“There are some 2,000 volunteer firefighters in the county, Ober and other top fire officials estimate, or about half the number of 20 years ago.
“What does that mean for the public?
“As state Fire Commissioner Edward Mann said this week, ‘when the local garden club doesn’t have enough volunteers to help, it just means we don’t have enough flowers in the town square. But when the local fire company doesn’t have enough volunteers, that has a direct impact on fire safety.’
“Across Pennsylvania, the state where Benjamin Franklin himself was a volunteer firefighter, Mann estimates the number of fire volunteers has fallen to about one-fifth of what it was in 1977.
“A number of society-based factors — two main ones are busier recreational schedules and businesses that are less willing to let their workers go fight a fire — are behind the drop both nationally and locally, fire leaders said.
“Lancaster city has the only fully paid department among the 80 or so fire departments in the county. Manheim Township also has some paid part-time firefighters.
“Even with the drop in numbers, leaders like Craig Elmer, director of the county’s Public Safety Training Center, are encouraged that today’s firefighters, while fewer in number, are better trained than ever.
“When Elmer joined as a volunteer in 1966, ‘it was basically a case of pay your dues and then it was on-the-job training,’ the former chief at Manheim Township’s Eden department said.
“‘Now, I think many of our departments have minimum standards, so that individuals can be in training for two, three, even six months before they actually get to fight a fire.
“”But that means they have better training when they actually get to the fire.’
“But the combination of the extra training and the higher number of calls departments must answer — and a growing number of them are false alarms — means ‘an awful lot of time commitment,’ Elmer said.
“Years ago, the fire hall was the hub in many towns in Lancaster County, just as it was across the U.S.
“That is still true in some places, but in suburban and more developed areas, it’s no longer the case.
“Years ago, many Lancaster-area companies had three active work shifts a day, which meant a ‘supply of firefighters at all times of the day,’ Elmer noted.
“Today, there’s less shift work, and that really affects the response during the day — easily the most challenging time for fire companies to provide enough firefighters.”