Pa. county's volunteer first responder shortage now a 'critical issue'
County officials are addressing the matter by forming a committee to study the issues, share ideas and come up with possible solutions
By Tim Hahn
ERIE COUNTY, Pa. — A shrinking number of volunteer firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics has become a critical issue in Erie County and one that should concern all of its residents, said Jim Rosenbaum, a longtime member of the West Ridge Fire Department in Millcreek Township and chairman of the county's Public Safety Advisory Committee.
County officials are addressing the matter by forming a subcommittee of Rosenbaum's committee to study the issues, to share ideas and to come up with possible solutions. The subcommittee, which Erie County Public Safety Director John Grappy said they hope to have in place within the next 30 to 60 days, will be made up of county residents, representatives of emergency services and elected and appointed municipal, county and state officials.
"Time is of the essence," said Rosenbaum, a 40-year member of the volunteer fire service. "It's becoming more and more obvious every day that we've got a very serious staffing issue right now throughout all of Erie County."
Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper said she felt it was a good time for county officials to "try to be in the conversation" concerning volunteer and other emergency service staffing, "with no preconceived idea of where it's going to go," noting the cooperative effort countywide that went into the county's developing emergency radio project.
"We want to make sure we have representation from all sectors of the county, who will have a voice around the table," she said.
A lack of volunteers has forced some of the county's 31 volunteer departments to hire on paid, part-time staff to answer fire and emergency medical service calls at times when available volunteers are few. Many departments, including some paid emergency medical services, have offered incentives to help boost their rosters. Grappy said while he applauds those efforts to staff departments and to recruit and retain new members, the problem continues to get worse, not better.
The hope is to bring together people from throughout Erie County to identify what a municipality's specific problems might be concerning its volunteer service and come up with some solutions as a group on how the issue might be resolved "or at least initially addressed," Rosenbaum said.
"All emergencies are local first, meaning if there's an emergency in Millcreek Township it is a Millcreek Township issue to deal with first," Rosenbaum said.
While most volunteer organizations are facing the same kind of manpower problems, the big difference is that the volunteer fire departments are "the nation's domestic soldiers," the ones who respond to calls for help when help is needed the most, he said.
"If you call for help as a citizen of Erie County, you should be able to feel confident that the call is going to be answered in a timely fashion by qualified people," Rosenbaum said. "It shouldn't be like spinning the big wheel on the 'Wheel of Fortune,' where one day you spin it and you hit $1,000 and then five minutes later you spin that wheel and you land on bankrupt. That's where we're at right now. Not five years from now, we're there right now and every community is seeing the same thing."
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