Background Information on the State of the Volunteer Fire Service
The volunteer fire service nationwide faces significant challenges in overcoming a basic and growing lack of both human and financial resources. For many years, volunteer fire companies across the country and in Pennsylvania functioned independently and were relatively stable both operationally and financially. This has changed dramatically over the past 20 years as fire companies and other emergency service providers face mounting challenges and service demands.
Volunteer participation in the fire service is a strong tradition in Pennsylvania, and the Commonwealth's overwhelming reliance on volunteer fire services is a distinctive characteristic of the state's emergency services network. Volunteer firefighters, along with other local emergency responders, are the community's first line of response when a serious event occurs.
In addition to traditional fire protection and suppression functions, the role of Pennsylvania's volunteer fire service has expanded to include such activities as vehicle, water, and trench rescue; hazard management; emergency medical service; response to weather-related emergencies; industrial and agricultural accidents; and hazardous material events. Pennsylvania volunteers are also being called upon to meet the new expectations and challenges of the 21st century, including homeland security preparedness and the threats posed by weapons of mass destruction and biological incidents.
Based on the records maintained by the Office of the State Fire Commissioner, Pennsylvania currently has a total of 2,448 fire companies/departments. This includes 2,354 all-volunteer companies, 22 career (paid) departments, and 72 "combination" paid/volunteer companies.
Pennsylvania is home to 12% of the nation's 20,000 all-volunteer fire companies which is more than any other state. Two factors account for the large number of volunteer fire companies operating in Pennsylvania. First, Pennsylvania has a long history of volunteer fire service, reportedly being the home of the nation's first volunteer fire company started in Philadelphia around 1736. Second, the highly decentralized nature of Pennsylvania's local government structure, which includes more than 2,500 governmental units, has encouraged a corresponding proliferation of volunteer fire companies.
Approximately 72,000 volunteer firefighters actively staff these companies, and many other volunteer fire company members serve in other capacities (e.g., doing fund-raising, station maintenance, and administrative duties). The volunteer nature of these services has been referred to as the best public service bargain for taxpayers and local governments ever devised. One recent study by the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute estimated that volunteer fire companies produce tax savings of about $6 billion a year for Pennsylvania state and local governments.
The following two points briefly summarizes the most significant problem areas and challenges currently facing the state's volunteer fire companies.
Pennsylvania is experiencing significant losses in the number of citizens who are willing to volunteer to provide fire, rescue, and emergency medical services.
Rising operating costs and fundraising demands are placing serious strains on the state's volunteer fire companies.