Lewisburg fire company puts out call for volunteers
By Erin Thompson
The Daily Item
LEWISBURG — If residents don’t step forward to volunteer with the fire department, they will pay the price in the future.
“The choice is support the company with your time and effort or see taxes increased for a paid fire department,” said Larry Erdley, chairman of the fire board for the William Cameron Engine Company. Erdley has been with the fire company for more than 45 years, and he said that although the fire company has no set date for a possible transition from a volunteer to a paid service, the need to provide fire protection may require a switch to paid firefighters during the workday when most volunteers are at their jobs.
“Our emphasis is working to extend the volunteer service as long as possible,” he said.
The issue was raised last week when William Cameron officials met with representatives from each of the five municipalities the company serves to discuss the need for volunteers.
“We went to the municipalities to let them know — as the people responsible for fire protection and emergency medical services — of our situation and to garner ideas and contacts from them so that we can hopefully bring people in,” Erdley said. “If nothing is done, we will see shrinking membership.”
The fire company has about 35 members representing various levels of participation, including a few volunteers from neighboring Bucknell University.
However, Erdley said the downfall of having college students who volunteer is that they are only able to participate about 60 percent of the year.
Perhaps the biggest drawback to becoming a volunteer firefighter is the substantial commitment of time in an uncertain economy.
Potential volunteers “need dedication and a willingness to spend the time, first to be trained as a firefighter or an emergency medical technician (and) to come to the station and perform maintenance of the equipment and on the building and grounds and to participate,” he said.
In addition to firefighting services, the William Cameron Engine Company has an emergency medical service that requires 160 hours of training, based on Department of Health standards.
While the company has started a number of marketing techniques, such as preparing brochures and updating information on its Web site, the East Buffalo Township supervisors also are working to put a plan in place.
They have had a consultation with the Small Business Development Center at Bucknell, which could develop a program to help find volunteers and explain what firefighting is all about.
“If nothing is done, (the fire company) could consolidate or have to switch to a professional, paid firefighting organization,” said East Buffalo Supervisor Henry Baylor. “This could be costly, but the people are going to have to recognize the need and put new life back into the fire company.”
However, fellow Supervisor Thomas Zorn said it can be difficult to get young people locked in to such an organization. “They’re likely to leave and do other things,” he said.
After meeting with the Small Business Development Center, the supervisors said they found the fire company has been marketing to the wrong age group.
According to Zorn, the company has been going to farmers markets and holding open houses when the members should have been setting up in malls and outside movie theaters.
The lack of volunteers is not atypical for fire companies. It is part of a nationwide struggle to keep volunteer firefighters.
According to a 2005 article in USA Today, some fire trucks in Perdix would arrive at a fire with only one or two people on each vehicle. And worse, by the time they arrived on the scene, the half-million dollar trucks didn’t help much because buildings already had burned to the ground.
The Perdix fire chief said it took 20 minutes to deploy the number of firefighters and lines he needed when it should have taken two.
The William Cameron has not reached that point, but fears it may be there in the near future if the community does not step up, Erdley said.
The fire company responds to about 400 calls a year, according to information on its Web site. If the fire company cannot field a squad, the nearest responders would come from Winfield, Mifflinburg, New Columbia or across the West Branch of the Susquehanna River from Northumberland County.
The decline in firefighters is particularly steep in the Northeast. Pennsylvania, which had about 300,000 volunteers three decades ago, is down to 70,000.
“Over the years, volunteer fire companies in Pennsylvania are losing their volunteer base, and they are having a hard time continuing to operate,” Zorn said. “We would hate to see them not be in existence because of a lack of volunteers.”
Zorn said tax increases for a paid department would be a heavy burden on the community.
“If we had to go with a paid fire company, the expense to the township would be much higher than what it is now,” he said. “We’re going to try to make all efforts to see that they can continue to remain a volunteer fire company and continue to remain in existence.”
Lewisburg Borough Councilman John Baker, who attended the meeting with the fire company, said the shortage of volunteer firefighters could be partially due to changes in lifestyles.
“These days, volunteerism is still there, but the level of commitment on individuals’ lives, jobs and so forth has changed in that regard.”
Baker, however, is in favor of paid firefighters.
Baylor said the best candidate for volunteering would be someone 16 or 17 who plans to stay in the area.