Are Volunteer Fire Departments Still Viable?

2019-04-30T10:11:28+00:00April 12th, 2019|

Faced with a lack of money and volunteers, some western Pennsylvania departments are turning to consolidation.

By Jordana Rosenfeld

The landscape of the Mon Valley, in western Pennsylvania, is marked by a jumble of lush greenery and industrial infrastructure. Abandoned buildings consumed by ivy and vast, overgrown brownfields line the Monongahela River, alongside and between still-operational mills and miles of functioning railroad. One such mill is the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock, which has been in operation since 1875. The mill looms at the far side of Braddock’s commercial district, producing slabs of steel twenty-four hours a day. As Representative Summer Lee says in the introduction to the short documentary series “Braddock, PA,” Braddock is “the town that essentially built America”—thanks, in part, to the Edgar Thompson Works.

Just steps from the entrance to the mill sits a fire station, one of two belonging to the newly-christened River’s Edge Volunteer Fire Department, another institution that works around the clock, the product of a recent merger between volunteer fire departments in two communities, Braddock and Rankin.

Braddock and Rankin are two adjacent municipalities in Southwestern Pennsylvania, both inner-ring suburbs of Pittsburgh, settled on Shawnee, Delaware, and Iroquois land in the upper Monongahela River Valley. The communities were at the locus of the manufacturing explosion that fueled much of the region’s economy from the late 1800s well into the twentieth century. Braddock was the site of Andrew Carnegie’s first Bessemer steel plant, the still-operational Edgar Thomson Steel Works. Rankin was strategically settled to capitalize on access to the early westward-pushing railroad system and came to host several of its own factories.

Like many communities in the Rust Belt and across the U.S., Braddock and Rankin rely heavily on volunteer firefighters. Most fire departments nationwide are still volunteer-run, self-governing, and self-funded. As of 2017, more than eight hundred thousand of the country’s 1.1 million firefighters—about seventy-three percent—were volunteers, saving local municipalities almost $47 billion each year. But volunteer fire departments are facing serious existential threats, stemming primarily from a lack of money and people. In many communities, the model no longer appears viable.

The firefighter population is aging steadily. Since 1998, the percentage of firefighters under fifty nationwide has decreased, and the percentage of firefighters over fifty has increased. According to data from the National Fire Protection Association, More than half of volunteers nationwide are more than forty years old. Additionally, the cost of equipment has multiplied several times over the last few decades, and, as many municipalities struggle to fund public services, they have a diminished capacity to support volunteer fire departments, many of which never received significant financial support from their local governments to begin with.

Braddock, Pennsylvania - hhm8

Braddock, Pennsylvania. Photo via Flickr/hhm8 (CC BY 2.0).

Rankin’s VFD dates back to September of 1895 and has fourteen active members. Braddock’s current VFD was formed in 1972, in response to a large fire that proved to be too challenging for the Braddock career fire department to handle on its own. In the eighties, Braddock’s career department became yet another casualty of the economic downturn wrought by deindustrialization, and the VFD became the only firefighting game in town. It survived the economic downturn, though just barely, and today boasts twenty-four active members.

Pennsylvania, like most states in the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, has a percentage of volunteer firefighters (ninety-seven percent) significantly higher than the national average, making it especially susceptible to changes in volunteer demographics. The state has lost about 260,000 firefighters since the mid-1970s, leaving only around thirty-eight thousand in 2018. Since career firefighters are most likely to be employed in densely populated areas, the effects of this crisis are most pronounced in small municipalities. Ninety-five percent of volunteers serve areas with less than twenty-five thousand residents, and firefighters over fifty make up greater percentages of the volunteers in smaller communities.

Officials on the state and local level have been working to alert lawmakers and the general public to this impending crisis since as early as 1976, when the Governor’s Commission on Fire Prevention and Control issued a report titled “Pennsylvania Burning.” The report recommended establishing the Office of the State Fire Commissioner to provide oversight and resources to fire departments in the Commonwealth. At the time, a lack of funds and volunteers represented a clear and pressing problem; over the last forty years, the problem has escalated into an emergency. The most recent set of recommendations to the PA legislature, from the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, proposes familiar action steps—like providing incentives for volunteers and finding ways to augment VFD funding—with a new, frightening urgency.

 

No one understands this crisis more clearly than Rob Brady. He used to work for the Pennsylvania Governor’s Center for Local Government Services (GCLGS), where he was the one person on the state level responsible for assisting fire companies and other municipal bodies with mergers, consolidations, and other solutions to their persistent lack of resources. During a 2013 testimony to the state’s Senate Emergency Preparedness Committee, Brady estimated that the state received three calls a week from struggling fire departments asking for help. Now he owns and operates his own consulting firm, ROBB Consulting, through which he continues to work with local civic organizations, helping them develop sustainability and a long-term plan for success.

Many small communities are choosing to address the fire emergency by consolidating multiple VFDs. Recently, Braddock and Rankin hired Brady to help them merge. Although these particular departments are still fully functional organizations, Brady says that now is the right time for them to join forces. “The majority of [companies] that I deal with…want to remain in decent shape,” he explained. “They’re being proactive. The best time to [consolidate] is when you’re strong.”

 

C.J. Kaminsky, the Fire Chief of Braddock’s Volunteer Fire Department, joined the Braddock department in the late 1980s, with some high school friends, and never left. “I’m the last one of my group from 1987,” he told me. What’s kept him with the department for so long? “The brotherhood,” he said. “I know it sounds corny. Everybody down here is like family, it really is. We lost our chief last July to a heart attack and it was just like everybody came together like a big family… Everybody knows about everybody’s dogs and kids and things like that and everybody’s uncle or aunt.”

The slump in volunteer fire department membership can be attributed to a variety of factors, including wage stagnation, national economic setbacks, and overall decline in volunteerism. Today’s VFDs have significant fundraising responsibilities, which may drive away what few new recruits a department can attract. “A lot of organizations today are held together by five or six people,” Brady said. Meanwhile, call volumes are around three times as great as they were thirty years ago.

Another factor driving membership decline, according to Kaminsky, is increased training requirements. In 1987, Kaminsky’s training took about forty hours. Now, he estimates the total number of training hours for a new recruit “comes out to two hundred and ten, two hundred and fifteen hours…That’s a lot of nights and weekends.”

Kaminsky said the Braddock department began pursuing mergers with neighboring communities about fifteen years ago. After a few failed attempts with other departments, “the talks [with Rankin] started about six years ago.” He told me it wasn’t a controversial decision to start looking for other departments with which to merge. “We all know we need to merge—the manpower situation, especially in the Valley here, [and] the financial backing from municipalities isn’t there.”

Since the Braddock and Rankin fire departments receive limited funding from their respective municipalities, they, like many volunteer departments, feel the strain of increasing operational costs—according to some estimates, equipment costs have more than quintupled since 1984. “A fire engine can range anywhere between $400,000 to $600,000, a ladder truck’s $900 to over a million,” Kaminsky said.

Government funding for fire departments has not significantly increased to match expenses. The PA government says it already provides more than $100 million to local emergency services, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. Kaminsky says the Braddock department receives $10,000 each year from the municipal government, and that pays one third of their annual insurance expenses. “Our organization has spent… about $2.5 million,” on necessary equipment like rescue vehicles and protective gear since the late eighties, Kaminsky said. “We raised every bit of that money ourselves.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, [but] you don’t see a police officer on the side of the street with a boot in his hand trying to raise money” – C.J. Kaminsky

Many volunteer fire companies participate in “a seemingly incessant quest to fundraise through bingo nights, chicken barbecues, raffles and other time-consuming revenue-generators,” according to a special report on the matter from 2014. The report estimates that, despite 2008 legislation making clear that municipalities are responsible for funding their own emergency services, volunteers spend sixty percent or more of their volunteer hours fundraising. For Braddock’s department, fundraising means bingo. Kaminsky told me they generate between ninety and ninety-five percent of their income from twice-weekly bingo nights. “That’s what runs the fire department,” he said.

VFDs occupy a strange financial position. They offer services that are essential to the wellbeing of a community, but those communities have rarely, if ever, had to set aside substantial amounts of money in order to fund them. Now that it’s become increasingly difficult for VFDs to support themselves, the financial stakes are gigantic. The essential nature of emergency services, alongside the comparatively slim allocation of public money to fund them, is somewhat paradoxical. “Don’t take this the wrong way, [but] you don’t see a police officer on the side of the street with a boot in his hand trying to raise money,” Kaminsky said.

There are some administrative tweaks available to state legislators that could help generate more funds for emergency services. PA’s most recent SR 6 report suggests closing certain tax loopholes that allow insurance companies to opt out of a tax that funds local emergency services, for example. Unfortunately, these kinds of changes must happen at the Commonwealth level. “We’re gonna have to get the legislature 100% engaged to get this done,” Brady said.

Although the prospect of a substantial increase in state money for fire and emergency services is daunting, the cost of allowing those service groups to go defunct is even worse. According to the SR 6 report, the amount volunteers save the state with respect to emergency services “may be as high as $10 billion in today’s dollars. If we lose our volunteer fire and EMS companies and volunteers,” the report continued, “the taxpayers will face a very steep price tag.”

 

Today, Pittsburgh is perceived as having recovered from the industrial bust of the 1980s, with well-developed education and medical centers (the “Eds and Meds” of the East End) and a thriving arts and culture scene. The Mon Valley, however, which arguably suffered the worst effects of the loss of industry, still struggles to rebound.

In 2016, Braddock’s median household income was $24,551—less than half the Pennsylvania median of $56,907. Rankin’s 2016 median household income was only a few hundred dollars higher than Braddock’s. Both communities’ populations are majority black, in stark contrast to surrounding Allegheny County, which is about eighty percent white. According to the U.S. census, Braddock’s peak recorded population was 20,879 in 1920, and Rankin’s was 7,956 in 1930. In 2017, each had an estimated population of around two thousand.

Rob Brady grew up in McSherrystown, in south central Pennsylvania, a community that relied heavily on volunteer services—including fire and ambulance. “Everybody saw that the system wasn’t going to survive,” he said, because it required public service groups to “compete for the same money and compete for the same people.”  While the warning signs having been visible for quite some time, Brady says that, in the past twenty years, “the decline has really picked up speed.”

In 2004, McSherrystown’s fire company completed what is widely seen as a successful consolidation with three other fire and EMS services in Adams County. From that and other early consolidation efforts, Brady saw the value of cooperation and the potential of shared service programs to alleviate some of the financial burden on individual municipalities.

The Braddock-Rankin consolidation offers a hopeful example of how smaller communities can successfully work together to preserve and strengthen local institutions.

The Braddock-Rankin merger, which will create a new fire company called River’s Edge Volunteer Fire Department, is now complete. They’re on track for an official opening ceremony on June 1. Both parties are enthusiastic about their new collaboration. Nick Mroziak, president of Rankin’s VFD told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “It’s going to be good for both boroughs…We’re going to have more manpower between the two fire departments.” For now, River’s Edge plans to operate out of the two existing fire stations in Braddock and Rankin, but they hope to build a new, centrally located station in the future.

The Braddock-Rankin consolidation offers a hopeful example of how smaller communities can successfully work together to preserve and strengthen local institutions. Kaminsky says that the most challenging part of the process was selecting a name for the new department. “They wanted to make sure they had a good strong name to start the new chapter that provided some history, that was regional, that reflected community,” Brady explained. “River’s Edge” is a nod to Braddock and Rankin’s proximity to the Monongahela River.

River’s Edge VFD will be an amalgamation of both departments’ strongest features. “No one group is the same,” Brady told me. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. To have a successful consolidation process, “You have to understand the communities: what people are willing to do, what they’re not willing to do, and what the needs are.”

Brady and the Braddock and Rankin VFDs hope that, if their merger is successful in the long term, they can welcome other neighboring departments into their coalition and be a model for VFDs nationwide that are searching for a more sustainable structure. Of the people of the new River’s Edge VFD, Brady said, “They are a good group of folks. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with [them]… They know they need to do this to help the system survive,” and “They should be celebrated for taking such a courageous leadership role to move from the status quo and create something different.”

While support from the state government is needed for PA’s VFDs to survive, Brady stressed that local groups have the power to propel a lot of the necessary change: “Don’t wait ‘til Harrisburg solves your problem. Don’t wait for Washington,” he said. While the solutions will differ based on individual communities’ needs, to overcome the challenges facing VFDs nationwide, departments and communities will need to draw on the spirit of local sovereignty, self-determination, and mutual aid that, over the course of their history, has driven volunteers to serve their communities at great personal risk. The stakes, for many communities, are life or death. ■

 

 

Jordana Rosenfeld is a writer and journalist born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA; she currently does community outreach for an organization that helps people find jobs and buy houses in the upper half of the Mon Valley.

Cover illustration by David Wilson.

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