Volunteer firefighters do more than just put out flames.
After making sure everyone is safe, they take possessions to a safe location, counsel the family and set them up with the Red Cross, Shenango Township Volunteer Fire Department Chief Justin Barnes said.
“If there’s something that we can do for the family, we do it,” Barnes said. “We try to do everything to make it less traumatic for them.”
Shenango Township responds to about 15 calls a month for everything from fires to auto accidents to trees on wires. But, as with much of Mercer County, the firefighters who answer those calls are volunteers.
And like many other fire departments around the county, Shenango Township is working hard to find enough volunteers — and to fund the costs that go along with providing fire service for their communities.
In Shenango Township, the fire department covers 11 miles of interstate, which means vehicle accidents are common emergency calls.
During the snowstorm last November that resulted in a 12-vehicle pileup around the four- or five-mile marker on Interstate 80, traffic was backed up to Exit 15. Aside from taking care of those directly involved in the accident, the firefighters also had to help the people in the backed up traffic — some of whom sat in their cars for six hours.
“People needed fuel. People needed to go to the bathroom,” Barnes said. “We had three ATVs taking people on the roadway water and spare gas. At one point, some of the kids were getting nervous from sitting there so long that we had an engine company extract kids and get them to people coming to pick them up on one of the side roads.”
For the West Salem Township Volunteer Fire Department, calls include those same accidents and fires, but also incidents involving gas wells, Chief Bill Brown said.
“Fortunately we don’t get a lot of well fires, but we do get a lot of calls for leaks, so we go out and monitor it to make sure it’s not explosive in nature until the well tenders can get there. But we’ve also had a number of incidents with people hitting the wells in auto accidents,” Brown said.
West Salem was one of eight departments that responded to a gas well fire last October, so the state Department of Environmental Protection is teaching firefighters how to handle them in the future. Firefighters also have taken swift water rescue training, due to people getting caught in the Shenango River, Brown said.
“We’re a jack of all trades. We have to do everything from the basics, like practicing throwing a ladder to applying foam to flammable liquids fires,” the chief said.
When Brown firstjoined the department in 1979, there were about 30 to 35 members, with about 15 to 18 people able to respond to a given call.
Now, he said the fire department has about 21 active members, 17 of whom are firefighters. Two to three people are able to respond to a fire call on a regular day, though the number can increase to about six or seven people after work hours or on the weekends.
“We’re almost at a crisis point now,” Brown said.
When it comes to the decline in willing volunteers, Brown said a lack of availability for many people has been a major factor, which has been caused primarily by the decline of manufacturing jobs in places such as Greenville. Even during the day when people worked steady shifts at companies such as Warner Ladder, Steel Car or Damascus Tube, the volunteers were still allowed to leave work if the situation required it.
“They used to be well-paying jobs, and most of the families were single-income families, but most families now are double-income, so if one spouse is working, the other is watching the kids,” the chief said. “Back when the mills were running, they actually let some of our personnel leave if there was a confirmed fire, and we could turn out a good 10 or 12 people.”
The Shenango Township fire department faced a similar problem about three years ago. The department was down to six active members when Barnes was hired by the township to serve as its fire chief.
Through a group effort among those in the fire department, community outreach, Facebook and word-of-mouth, the department is now up to about 45 active members, with 40 serving as firefighters while five or six are social members who assist with department functions and events, Barnes said.
Part of that recruitment came from the fire department’s junior officers, who are from 14 to 17 years old. The department tries to maintain a minimum roster of six junior firefighters, although that number fluctuates as members age out, the chief said.
“We have a great group of junior firefighters,” Barnes said.
Even when there is an interest, the training that volunteers must undertake can sometimes be a deterrent, the chiefs said.
The essentials of firefighting course alone that recruits must take is about 160 hours. Firefighters in Shenango Township have also undergone additional training including vehicle rescue classes, leadership courses and HAZMAT operations training, Barnes said.
“Every year we do at least 3,000 hours of training,” he said.
This year, the Shenango Township fire department will have 12 firefighters taking EMT classes, which will allow the firefighters to start responding to medical calls. The fire department would be able to respond within five to seven minutes to begin life-saving measures, while an ambulance could take 15 to 17 minutes, if there’s no shortages of vehicles that are able to respond.
“The community’s been great to us, so I think going into answering medical calls is us kinda giving back to the community,” Barnes said.
But even when the volunteers are willing to give of their time for free, the cost of equipment continues to rise, some of which is dictated by requirements from the National Fire Protection Association.
Turnout gear, which the NFPA recommends be replaced at least every 10 years, can cost about $12,000 — that includes the air pack, mask, pants, coats, helmets and gloves, Barnes said. Brown added that the cost of a fire truck has increased, too.
“When I started with the department, about five years prior, they bought a new engine for about $27,000 I think, and now we just priced out a new engine and are looking for a federal grant because it’s over $450,000,” he said.
In Shenango Township, the fire department has a three-mill fire tax that helps support the department, while other fundraisers including a chili cook-off and a car show are also held, Barnes said. West Salem contracts with the township, so funds are provided from the township’s general fund, Brown said.
Federal and state grants are also available to help offset some of those costs, Brown said.
“We have a fantastic relationship with our township. They’re very appreciative of the work we do,” he said.
The volunteers, Brown said, deserve that recognition. They give a lot to their community, he said.
“These people have families that they’re taking time away from,” he said. “They get up in the middle of the nights and answer calls, show up to training, meetings, and they do stuff around the station, too, like maintenance, washing of the trucks. They’re doing all that for free.”
Despite the advances in training and technology, firefighting is still dangerous for the volunteers, and certain aspects have actually made it even deadlier over the years.
When he started his firefighting career, Brown said the average structure fire could take 15 minutes to become fully blown, but that time has decreased to about three minutes due to the differences in building materials, which also led to different carcinogens the firefighters could be exposed to.
The lightweight construction of modern homes also makes them burn faster and hotter than older homes made of materials such as heavy timber. Metal roofs can also trap heat and smoke, requiring firefighters to use tools such as a circular saw to open up the roof to help ventilate that smoke and heat, Barnes said.
“You’ve got to move a little quicker. We teach all of our firefighters to move with a purpose,” Barnes said.
However, both chiefs said that the area’s fire departments cooperate very well together, which helps increase effectiveness when responding to calls such as structure fires. But regardless of which department the volunteers are with, the job can be dangerous and very rewarding.
“When you can respond to a house fire and save people’s belongings, or if you can respond to an auto accident and disentangle someone from a crashed motor vehicle, and then you see them three months later walking around, that really gives you a sense of accomplishment and a sense of pride,” Brown said.