Robert Leuschen knows what it's like to take on a blaze face to face volunteering for the Conneautville Fire Department for 14 years.
"It's just in the blood," he tells us. But, recently, he knows what it's like to be on the other side of the flame. One day, he received a tragic phone call that "felt like someone punched me in my stomach," Leuschen tells us.
His home catching on fire October 15th. "I don't expect my own home to go up ever. Volunteering, you go help other people not expecting to need the help yourself."
Leuschen is a third-generation volunteer. "My grandfather's done it. My dad did it." Harry Latta, a Volunteer Firefighter for around 40 years and Captain at Stancliff Hose Company, says it's the way it used to be. "Growing up, you'd always go down to the fire station, you'd always roll hose, you'd always clean firetrucks. That was the thing to do." But now, that's not the case.
When Latta started volunteering, he says Pennsylvania had more than 300,000 Volunteer Firefighters, but now "it's maybe 5-15,000 depending on the services and that if it's a paid, professional fire service or if it's a volunteer professional service."
Latta describes the shortage of volunteers as a crisis; not only putting the homeowners in danger, but also the safety of the firefighters. "If we have two to three guys and it's a house fire, two of us have to go into that fire and we have no backup... People have to realize that in a true emergency, by calling 911, these services may not be there when they hang the phone up and they expect somebody there."
The decline of volunteers is due to many reasons: the increase in training, the need for families to have multiple incomes, and the decline in funding fire stations are getting from communities. "The fire department benefits 100 percent of the community. So, it's really difficult to only have maybe a quarter of the people support us financially."
Stephanie Fox, a Volunteer Firefighter and EMT says being a woman is no excuse either. "There are things that I can't do just because of my height or I'm not a weightlifter, but there are things that I can do that the bigger guys can't." But, being a volunteer doesn't necessarily mean you have to suit up in full turn-out gear and hold the hose. "We need help with everything from social media, property maintenance, helping us with finances and grants... If you're interested in anything, we can find a place for you."
West Lake Fire Department unique in that it also covers water rescue and airport emergencies. All fire departments doing different things to help try and bring in more volunteers. Rick Shau, Fire Chief of West Lake Fire Department, tells us, "Millcreek Township formed a fire commission that each of the fire departments has a representative on. We're looking at ways to try and do some recruitment, retension; try to find some untapped waters to get some volunteers, but it's tough."
Shau also saying there's writing on the wall. "Eventually the end result is going to be your taxes are going to go up because you're going to have to a paid fire department here to protect you." Which, some departments are already doing, bringing on some paid staff.
Being on the other side of the battle line, Leuschen says changes everything for him opening his eyes even more to the importance of volunteers..."Tells me what the families are going through versus what we're going through coming in fighting the fire."
Links to learn more about each of these fire departments or to donate are below:
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