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Regular jobs put Pa. volunteer firefighters in a bind - 5/5/2007

By Mary Klaus
The Patriot-News
Copyright 2007 The Patriot News Co.
All Rights Reserved

SWATARA, TWP., Pa. — When ABC East Lanes burned in Swatara Twp. last month, J.R. Miller left his job as a Steelton public works employee to join 125 firefighters from two counties fighting the flames.

Other volunteer firefighters at work heard about the blaze but didn't have permission to leave their jobs to answer the fire call.

While many municipalities rely on volunteer firefighters, fire companies are finding it increasingly difficult to fill their ranks -- especially on weekdays when job pres sures and other difficulties squeeze many would-be firefighters.

Pennsylvania has gone from about 3,000 volun teer companies with 300,000 firefighters in 1976 to 2,345 companies and only 72,000 firefighters in 2005, said Justin Fleming, a spokesman with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

The plummeting numbers of volunteer fire companies and firefighters in Pennsylvania have left many communities dangerously short of firefighters, especially in the daytime, said Edward Mann, the state's fire commissioner.

Some industries and municipalities allow their employees to respond to fires, but Mann said the state doesn't keep statistics on how many do.

Pennsylvania does have a law prohibiting companies from disciplining volunteer firefighters, fire police or members of an ambulance service or rescue squad who are late to work because they responded to an emergency. "The state law applies to firefighters already at a fire when their work starting times begins," Mann said. "Once you're at work, you can't leave unless you have your employer's permission."

Policies differ company to company.

Dennis Curtin, spokesman for the Weis Market chain based in Sunbury, said Weis asks employees in its 156 stores in five states to alert their store if they are volunteer firefighters.

"We work with them within reason," Curtin said. "We let our associates who are volunteers to leave for fires in the same municipality."

In Swatara Twp., Huggins Printing Co. allows its firefighter employees to leave work to serve in emergencies, said Art Gustin, company chairman, calling it "a community service."

Hershey Foods permits employees "in non-critical jobs to leave, on the clock, for fire calls," said Rodney Sonderman, Hershey Volunteer Fire Department assistant chief. "We have four or five members working there now. It's been a blessing over the years."

Highmark Blue Shield of East Pennsboro Twp. has "less than a dozen" volunteer firefighters among its 5,000 midstate employees, a spokesman said. He said they may leave for fire calls and "it's up to the manager if they're on the clock or have to make the time up. Leaving for fire calls is very rare."

Mann said at least part of the problem getting volunteers is that many people no longer live and work in the same community.

"When I was growing up in Bellefonte, the local merchants, banker and others ran to the firehouse when the fire whistle blew," Mann said. "They would hang a sign on the store [that] said 'we all went to the fire.""

Many area municipalities support volunteer firefighter needs.

Hampden Twp. permits its eight to 10 employees who are volunteer firefighters to go to "working structure fires or accidents with entrapment in the township" and still be paid, said Michael Gossert, township manager.

Steelton's six municipal workers who are firefighters also leave "on the clock" to fight fires, said Mike Musser II, borough manager.

"We see this as a public service. If we didn't allow it, lives could be lost. Public property could be destroyed. Saving lives and property is worthwhile at any cost."

Swatara Twp.'s three highway department workers who are firefighters may respond to fires in the township, said Fire Marshal Darrin Robinson.

Paxtang Borough Manager Ken Beard said Paxtang doesn't have a formal policy but lets employees to go "off the clock" for big fires.

Saul Schmolitz, a Paxtang Public Works Department employee, Grantville volunteer fire chief and Paxtang volunteer firefighter, said he occasionally uses vacation or personal time to fight fires.

"More places should let volunteer firefighters leave," Schmolitz said. "If nobody could leave work and the rigs didn't move, you'd have tragedy."

Penbrook Borough Council allows its highway crew workers who are firefighters to leave "on the clock" for all dispatches in Penbrook and to any dispatched structure fire or accident with entrapment in Paxtang or Susquehanna Twp.

The Penbrook highway workers -- Paul Williams, a Chambers Hill firefighter and former chief, and Todd Zwigart, Paxtang fire chief -- praised the policy.

"During the day, especially from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. when the manpower is low, we can serve as the drivers and the crew," Williams said. "We can get there first, maybe save a life and make a difference."

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