SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. – Everybody in this fire station was sleeping one recent morning when the alarms started blaring. Six firefighters hopped out of their bunks and pulled their gear. The sun was still coming up when they reached a house where smoke was rising from the basement.
Afterward, the young men gathered in the station’s control room. The chief’s son wrote up the report: furnace malfunction in the basement, no injuries, no damage.
This all-volunteer fire station and two others in Shippensburg, a factory and university town of about 5,500 people, are vestiges of the past. Firefighters sit around on weekdays playing rummy, and people gather for bingo Friday nights.
Yet the stations are much quieter than they were decades ago, when they felt like the center of the town. As the community’s interests have shifted from the fire stations, the number of volunteers has fallen.
“Everybody has other things occupying their time,” said Shippensburg Fire Chief Randy O’Donnell. “If you don’t get ’em young, you probably won’t get ’em.”
The number of volunteer firefighters has been falling for decades here and across the country, dropping by about 12 percent from 1984 to about 788,000 in 2014. That has spelled trouble for cities and towns — especially smaller ones in more rural areas — that have always depended on volunteer departments to save thousands, even millions, of dollars every year on salaries and benefits. Many have been forced to hire at least some paid staff.
The decline in volunteers has become more drastic in the last decade, as young people have moved out of rural areas.
To stem the loss, states increasingly are offering financial incentives for volunteer firefighters, such as tax breaks. Pennsylvania passed a law in November that will give volunteer firefighters property tax or local income tax credits. Connecticut expanded a similar law last year, and Alaska and New York have similar laws in place.
Other states are choosing to forgo state revenue to give income tax credits to volunteer firefighters. Nebraska passed a law last year, and similar laws are on the books in Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, New York and South Carolina. Some of the laws also apply to other emergency responders, such as paramedics.
O’Donnell and other chiefs across the country welcome the tax breaks, which they say help offset the costs of volunteering, such as driving personal cars to and from the station. They say the incentives might convince existing volunteers to stay around longer — but they probably won’t convince others who don’t already have the desire to serve to volunteer.
It’s become harder to recruit volunteer firefighters as family and work environments have changed, said Jack Reckner of the Kentucky Association of Fire Chiefs, which for years has been advocating for a tax credit in the state.
Men — who have always been the majority of volunteer firefighters — are taking a larger role in raising children and more of their wives are working. Commutes are longer. Sports and other activities are pulling families in more directions. Volunteerism, in general, is on the decline.
“Volunteerism is one of the first things that go by the wayside, simply because people can’t afford it,” Reckner said.
States’ reliance on volunteer firefighters varies greatly. In Pennsylvania, about 97 percent of departments are run by all or mostly volunteers, compared to 9.1 percent in Hawaii.
As the number of volunteers goes down, the number of departments with mostly or all paid staff goes up — from 4,209 departments in 2009 to 4,485 in 2014.
Decades ago in Shippensburg, residents were more likely to work in factories in town. When a call came through, they would run out of their jobs to the station. Now, more work outside Shippensburg, and employers here and across the U.S. are less likely to offer such flexibility.
The job of the volunteer firefighter also has changed, said Dave Finger of the National Volunteer Fire Council. It used to be that firefighters served with little training or requirements. Many states now require them to have a certain number of training hours each year to be certified.
Volunteers also spend less of their time responding to calls, and more time writing reports and fundraising. That’s one thing volunteers say they don’t like about the idea of tax credits — they often lead to more paperwork.
Because of the increased demands, more states have begun considering what benefits they can offer, especially in the last few years as they have come out of recession.
The council is asking Congress to help by providing federal income tax credits to all volunteer firefighters, and by extending federal tax exemptions for any state or local benefits volunteers receive.
Volunteer firefighters are estimated to save local governments $139.8 billion annually in pay, benefits, operations and maintenance that would be spent supporting paid departments, according to a report from the National Fire Protection Association.
In New York alone, volunteer departments save municipalities $3.35 billion each year.
But volunteers aren’t free when states start adding incentives. New York provides volunteer firefighters with income and property tax credits, and allows local governments to set up pension programs for the volunteers. In 2014, the income tax credit alone cost the state $15.9 million for 73,434 claims.
In some states, such as Kentucky, it’s been difficult for fire chiefs to convince legislatures to provide tax credits when the states’ budgets are already tight. State lawmakers have pushed tax credit bills in the Kentucky Legislature every year for nearly a decade, but none has been approved. A new bill has been proposed for the current session.
In Oklahoma, which faced a budget shortfall of more than $1 billion last year, volunteer firefighters almost saw their tax credit reduced. The state gave up $723,000 for 2,239 claims of up to $400 in tax year 2014. Amid a push to cut back on all tax credits, a bill was proposed that would have cut the firefighter tax credit by 25 percent, but it failed.
In Shippensburg, Dakota Lanious, a volunteer who helps with recruitment, said that while he thinks financial incentives are a nice gesture, only a “very special type of person” wants to be a volunteer firefighter, and tax credits won’t be a deciding factor.