There are tinges of gray around the hairlines. An ache grips them as the self-contained breathing apparatus is hoisted on their backs. Knees creak as they grab the hose line and climb the steps into the burning building.
Gone are the days when much younger firefighters could rush into a burning building with seemingly endless energy to attack a fire.
A number of Washington County fire departments are having difficulty attracting new members.
The days when there was a waiting list to join the 35-spot roster on the Canonsburg Volunteer Fire Department are gone. While fire Chief Tom Lawrence has enough interior firefighters today, he is concerned about the future.
“We are not hurting today, but we’ve got quite a few guys in their mid-50s who I am sure would like to retire at some point,” he said. “I’d really like to bring in five or six good guys to bring along.”
The department has one firefighter with 50 years’ experience.
Of the 21 active members, 10 are over the age of 50, while only two are under the age of 30. Lawrence said that 30 years ago in Pennsylvania, there were 300,000 volunteer firefighters. By 2005, that number had dropped to 72,000.
“I think in the last few years, we have had one application,” Lawrence added. “We’ve even lowered the age limit from 21 to 18. We need active firefighters, not just someone who is a name on the roster.”
Having a wife or significant other who understands the demands of the volunteer fire service is a bonus. Lawrence said, like many others in the department, he joined before he was married, so his wife understood what she was getting into and supported his efforts.
Lawrence, who is in charge of the street department, is available to respond to calls during the day. He said it is a rare occasion when he, Mayor David Rhome and state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, who are assistant chiefs, are all out of town.
“But I’d like to get a paid guy for stability,” Lawrence said. “That person could also do things like inspections, fire drills and fire prevention.”
Canton Township fire Chief Dave Gump, a 40-year veteran of the fire service, said about 80 percent of his volunteer firefighters are over the age of 40.
“There aren’t many young ones,” Gump said. “Melvin Johnson is 76. He is a mainstay for us, especially during daylight calls. He stays at the station and answers the radio.”
Gump said it has been about three years since they’ve had a younger member join.
“You just can’t get them to join,” Gump said. “They don’t have the interest, plus since they are doing it for free, it is just something no one wants to do.”
Gump said the amount of training new firefighters must undertake before they can start firefighting is also a handicap.
“Back when I started, you were told to take the hose with the water coming out and put it on the red stuff,” Gump said. “Now, before you even know if you like firefighting or if it is for you, you have to take hours of training. And that scares off a lot of people.”
Avella fire Chief Eric Temple said most of his firefighters are in their late 30s or early 40s. Temple has one veteran member with 50 years of service and another with 40 years. He also has two junior firefighters who are in their teens.
“There is no new blood coming through,” Temple said. “And we aren’t the only ones. I hear other chiefs talking about it, too.”
“I know when I first started in the fire service with the West Middletown fire department, there were all kind of juniors,” said Temple, who has 30 years as a volunteer firefighter. “Then when I moved to Avella, there were a lot of young guys.”
Temple said that with families involved in so many activities with their children, it is also difficult to find the time to volunteer.
Like Gump, he said many potential volunteers are put off by the number of hours required for basic firefighting training as recommended by the state.
But Edward Mann, longtime state police fire commissioner, said the number of hours shouldn’t be a deterrent, especially for anyone interested in seeing if firefighting is for them.
As for why some areas in the state are having difficulty attracting volunteers, Mann said that is difficult to pinpoint.
“There is no state requirement for training,” Mann said.
The suggested 166 hours of training is broken into four different modules, starting with a 16-hour course that serves as an introduction to firefighting.
“That gives them enough training to keep them out of trouble,” Mann said.
The other modules cover fire-ground support and exterior firefighting, and the last is interior firefighting, which is training needed to enter a burning building. Mann said this training is based on national standards developed by the National Fire Protection Agency that recommend firefighters should have 300 hours of training.
Fire departments may have to resort to unusual ways to recruit potential firefighters.
“You can’t expect prospective firefighters to knock on your door,” Mann said. “A lot of the public is afraid and doesn’t know what goes on behind the fire hall doors.”
He suggested that several departments get together and put on a program or hand out information at a local shopping mall.
“It is difficult because the fire service basically has nothing to offer but a sense of giving back to the community,” Mann said.
Lawrence said his department has tried recruiting but had little luck.
In Greene County, the situation is less dire, as departments are seeing some younger people joining.
Scott Gilblom, president of the Clarksville Fire Department in Greene County, said a recent membership drive was successful. The company received eight new applications that are under review. The company currently has between 18 and 20 members.
Jeff Marshall, chief of Waynesburg/Franklin Township Fire Department, said his company would have been in the same spot two years ago, but “we have had a group of seven to 10 friends join, and within the last two years we have added 12 to 14 firefighters under the age of 25.”
He also said the department is beginning to take on a “family flavor,” where sons of either present or former firefighters are joining.
“Frankly, this has been a pleasant surprise,” Marshall said.
But recruiting junior members (those under 18) has not been as successful.
“The kids are too busy with sports, watching TV, working on computers and iPads, etc., to become interested in the fire department,” he said. “That part of the recruitment effort has been a real struggle.”
Craig Bailey, president of Carmichaels/Cumberland Township Volunteer Fire Department, said there is more to being a fire department member than fighting fires.
“It is about money to operate, and the younger members don’t really want to fund-raise.”
Bailey said in the last couple of years, however, younger men have joined the fire company and have become more active in fundraising efforts.
“Typically, these men are sons of firefighters,” Bailey said.
As for the future of the volunteer fire service, Avella’s Temple said he is not sure.
“It takes 15 to 20 minutes to get here from Washington,” he said in reference to the city’s fire department, the only full-time paid department in the county.
Lawrence said it is tough to keep the volunteers interested.
“I wonder if the volunteer organization is going to be here in 15 years,” he said.
Greene County bureau chief Jon Stevens contributed to this report.