This evening WTAE’s reporter Paul Van Osdol released a three part “investigative report” detailing the response times of various volunteer fire departments within the Western Pennsylvania region. His report included local fire departments such as Industry Fire Department and Potter Township Fire Department and incident that members of our fire department have responded to. In his report he featured the response times of select calls that area department’s encountered, but never dug deeper to detail why a response time such as those occurred. I am not requesting specific reasons why a response may have been delayed, such as weather, accidents en route, ect, but rather systemic failures in higher capacities than the volunteers that have lead to longer response times. In the final segment this evening there was mention that in the coming weeks there will be additional reports looking into the money, training, and politics of the fire departments. I anxiously await to hear what Mr. Osdol has to say, but until then I would like to provide a viewpoint from our side.
The Extinction of Volunteers
In the first segment, Mr. Osdol made a passing mention of the fact that number of Pennsylvania Volunteer Fire Fighters has dropped significantly, by 5/6th according to his report. This is indeed a startling fact that I wish more emphasis would have been placed upon. In the 1980’s there were over 300,000 volunteer fire fighters across our state, today that number has dropped below 50,000. Our fire departments are in no way, shape, or form immune to this. Attached is a recent image from our department showing just how many volunteer fire fighters we have to respond on any given moment. The numbers of our volunteers is a constant discussion point for anyone in the fire department. We frequently publicize the need for new members, but it seems that even though our door is always open, no one ever walks through them. Our volunteers continue to age, and yet, no one is coming to fill their spots.
My request to WTAE would be to perform an investigative report into the recruitment and retention efforts being made at the department, municipality, and state levels. I can assure you that at the department levels countless departments are trying creative ways to get new members to walk in the door and stay in the door. Can the same be said for municipalities and the state?
A Word On Response Times
I would like to point one item out though, we are a volunteer fire department. Many times the response times of neighboring volunteer departments was cited in comparison to that of the paid Pittsburgh fire department. When the Pittsburgh fire department is dispatched they are on site ready to respond. When a volunteer fire department is dispatched we are at our full-time jobs, often times where we are not permitted to leave to respond to a call, at home with our families, etc. There will be an immediate difference in response time for that reason alone.
While the response times may differ between a professional and a volunteer fire department, the training requirements are not that different. For example in Pennsylvania it is expected of volunteer fire fighters to complete the essentials program, a nearly 200 hour training session. This is only the essentials though and training for the fire service does not end there, there is then advanced courses and specialty courses to respond to different scenarios. While time and time again WTAE referenced “volunteers”…our members are very much professionals on fire grounds.
If WTAE is looking for a investigative report, I ask them to speak to our fire departments regarding our aging fleet of vehicles, many of which were purchased over 20 years ago and the lack of funds to replace them. There may come in the near future where there isn’t even a fire truck to respond to the calls in many departments.
A Culture of Fundraising
If the responsibilities and expectations of our volunteers stopped at training and responses a great burden could be taken off of our volunteers, but that is simply not the case. We live in a state where 96% of all fire departments are fully staffed with volunteers and often times these departments are funded as an after thought in our communities. This has resulted in fire fighters becoming synonymous with fundraising. You may find us selling raffling tickets, standing outside with a boot, or in our case, selling Christmas Trees or hosting an annual 5k race to fund our operations. The training listed above is by no mean free and we must continually find creative ways to fund that training, the cost of equipment, and cost of repairing our aging fleet.
The cost to outfit a firefighter has surpassed $15,000 when you take into consideration the turnout gear, SCBA’s, tools, hoses, ect. Looking at the Monaca Fire Departments, there is a $5,000 expense budget per department. This often times goes to acquiring equipment much needed for our department. While Monaca departments are lucky in the sense that our borough pays for our buildings, repairs to apparatus, utilities, ect, other departments in the area are not as fortunate. They are forced to fund an even greater differential than our department is. We continue to do these fundraisers year after year to continue to provide free services to our neighbors, because we love what we do and love our communities.
It should be noted, volunteer fire departments in Pennsylvania save tax payers on average six billion dollars a year in place of paid fire departments across the state. This translates to approximately $1,500 a year per tax payer. While this may seem like a low number, each year the Monaca Fire Department sends out a donation letter to the community of Monaca to 2,700 households and we on average receive donations back from 17% of those letters for a total amount of $13,000. This works out to roughly $25 per donor or $4.5 per household in Monaca. We are eternally grateful for those who support us each and every year, it is reports by WTAE that place a taste of disdain in our donors’ mouths that only makes it that much harder to continue to receive those much needed donations.
The money simply isn’t there in so many senses for our volunteers, but rather than WTAE placing an investigation into that, they instead chose simply to look at response times. Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner had a great quote for a The Morning Call Article, ” Solobay said firemen may feel: ” ‘Hey, I don’t see you making police officers sell hoagies to get guns, or the street guys go out and have bingo to get a new truck.’ People tell you, ‘I joined the department because I wanted to give back to my community. I didn’t want to spend 90 percent of my time raising money to do something I’m doing for free.'”
More-overly, media outlets such as WTAE are constantly sent information regarding these events and fundraisers from our local departments, yet they are almost entirely ignored and never broadcast. Again, I would ask WTAE to look into this lack of funding for our volunteers so that we may focus on training rather than continually finding ways to keep our doors open.
Ask any firefighter why he or she is in this service and you are bound to find a plethora of answers. You will hear stories about how their parents and grandparents were fire fighters, about those who wanted to give back to their community, or perhaps someone in their families was impacted in some way and they wanted to give back. No matter the reason, volunteer fire fighters are certainly a breed of their own. It isn’t often that you will find someone who is willing to run into a burning building, wake up in the middle of the night, or leave the Christmas dinner table to assist someone that they don’t know.
The report this evening was very disheartening in that it spoke often times of those who lost loved ones in the fires that we responded to. I can not personally speak to the response times of each and every department, but I can speak to our commitment to each and every one of our communities. We are doing this certainly not for the money, but rather because many of us have come to the realization “If I don’t, who will”. The stark realization is what drives us to train despite the time commitment, fundraising despite the ever growing expenses, and respond to each and every call despite the reports by WTAE.
I can speak for each and every fire fighter in our departments that our hearts go out to the loved ones who were lost in these fires. I have personally witnessed courageous men and women go back into flames time and time again on searches, begging for another five minutes, one minute, 30 seconds though conditions of a building are rapidly deteriorating just to have those extra few seconds to try and save a life.
Through all of this I ask each and everyone of you reading this post to please remember that we are your community members, your neighbors, your children’s coaches and teachers, ect. Please know, we will never deliberately put you in harms way and our response will be as quick as possible no matter what any news report says. Often times we will meet on your worst day and we will try our best to make it better in any way that we can. Today was not a great day for the volunteer fire service due to these “investigative reports” by WTAE, I please ask of you to stand by us as you have in the past and know that we continue to train, continue to fundraise, and continue to protect.
Thank you for your support,
Monaca #4 President
Update from comment section:
To each and every one of you who has posted a comment below, shared the article, or liked it online. When I started this article last night it was out of frustration for the continual sensitization of the fire service in the media that I see growing each and every year. They are there to report on any time a fire department or fire fighter is down, but never highlight us at our greatest moments. There are well known, documented, and researched issues plaguing the volunteer fire service in Pennsylvania, but instead of this being the focus of news reports we instead see things such as “investigative reports” on response times.
I am here to tell you that if WTAE-TV Pittsburgh, KDKA-TV | CBS Pittsburgh, WPXI-TV Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Beaver County Times, ect won’t cover these issues then we as fire fighters must do so ourselves. When I started this post I wanted it to reach the community of Monaca to let them know that we truly are here for them, but since it has been published it has been viewed over 20,000 times in 39 different states. This number continues to grow each hour. I invite anyone who is interested in working on bringing to light the issues we are facing, please reach out to me at Chris.Shotter@MonacaFire.c
We have an incredible brotherhood and sisterhood of volunteers across our state who give back to their communities each and every day and I proud to be a part of that family. Together we can begin to drive the changes that we so desperately need.
Update 4:30 p.m.
This afternoon I reached out to WTAE Operations Manager Dan Henninger in regards to the WTAE report last night. He directed me to speak to Assistant News Director Jim Parsons on the matter. I was forwarded to his voicemail in which I left a message detailing the nature of the call. In addition to that, an email was sent to his attention and also News Director Justin Antoniotti. A copy of the email is attached below. Within 15 minutes I received a call from Paul Van Osdol requesting an interview to discuss the concerns that were raised and it has been scheduled for Tuesday. I have had a few individuals email me this afternoon raising the concerns that they had with the fire service as well, I am asking anyone who has a concern to please email me me at Chris.Shotter@MonacaFire.com with your concerns as you see them so that I may convey a larger viewpoint than that of just Monaca. Thank you everyone for continuing to spread this message.
As a result of this post, onn Wednesday, April 29th, WTAE featured our fire department in a report on the issues facing volunteer fire departments. While we spent nearly an hour and a half with reporter Paul Van Osdol, the report ended up being 2 minutes and 44 second. Please take a moment to read our elaboration of the report to have a fuller understanding of the issues we are facing here.