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Tough Times for Volunteer Firefighters in Chester County – Daily Local

West Chester Fire Department volunteers extinguish the fire. (PHOTO PROVIDED/WEST CHESTER FIRE DEPARTMENT)

WEST CHESTER — The Chester County Fire Department is having a hard time finding volunteers to climb ladders and pull hoses.

Many departments are using both old and new methods to recruit and retain volunteers as many long-serving, experienced firefighters age and are unable to perform the duties they once could.

“Even if (potential volunteers) are able to work two jobs and have a husband or wife, they often only have weekends to work,” said Gerry DiNunzio, president of the Chester County Fire Chiefs Association and a firefighter at Goodwill Fire Company. “We have trouble recruiting.”

Volunteer firefighters. (PHOTO SUBMITTED/WEST CHESTER FIRE DEPARTMENT)

County firefighters use innovative recruitment strategies.

College-age young students who attend university or work full time can live at the Good Will Fire Station for free. The fire department subsidizes the dorm-style living program.

Participants volunteer to put out fires, attend training courses and perform household chores such as cleaning.

Volunteer firefighters are hard to find. (PHOTO SUBMITTED/WEST CHESTER FIRE DEPARTMENT)

Firefighter and paramedic Olivia Klara, 18, said living in the fire station has been a great experience for her.

“The most firefighting experience you can get in West Chester is living there,” she said. “You always get on the first piece of equipment that comes out.

“If something happens, you’re one of the first people to see it.”

Fighting a house fire in East Bradford Township. (PHOTO SUBMITTED/WEST CHESTER FIRE DEPARTMENT)

Training is much simpler.

“We practice a lot and go through certain skills,” she said. “Everything is down there if you want to practice.

Everything is there and you don’t have to go to the fire station.

Volunteer firefighters extinguish a warehouse fire in West Goshen Township. (PHOTO PROVIDED/WEST CHESTER FIRE DEPARTMENT)

And saving money is nice too.

“It’s very helpful not to pay rent, especially in West Chester, where rents are so high,” she said. “The fire station at Union and Bolmar streets is a short walk into town.

“It’s nice to walk.”

West Chester Police and Fire Public Information Officer Dave March takes the table and folding chairs to community events, such as high school career days, July 4 fireworks shows and community days. He also recruits college students.

“The West Chester Fire Department, along with our Police Department, participates in many community events throughout the year to engage with our community,” March said. “We want to have open communication with our residents, business owners and visitors to continue to make West Chester a great place to be.

“Working with the community during events builds relationships and trust with our first responders.”

DiNunzio said volunteers don’t just run into burning buildings. Volunteers can help with administrative tasks, bookkeeping and treasurer duties, or file administrative paperwork.

March would agree.

“Through engagement, we encourage our community to join our fire department,” he said. “We need help in many ways, and there are many volunteer opportunities that do not involve incident response.”

Costs could be reduced when fire departments joined forces and streamlined repetitive tasks.

The West Chester Fire Company and the Chief oversee three departments: First West Chester Fire Company; Good Will Fire Company; and Fame Fire Company. The companies have some autonomy, and one person supervises them on a rotating basis.

The purchase of equipment for the West Chester Fire Department is covered by the West Chester Municipality budget. It is partly covered by municipal dues and by fundraisers, such as when a firefighter sticks his boot into an open car window at a busy intersection.

DiNunzio is thrilled that 355 Chester County first responders are taking advantage of the new property tax relief program.

“They do not expect any financial reward for their dedicated service; this incentive is a well-deserved thank you for taking on such an important and sometimes thankless role,” DiNunzio said.

First responders pay their property taxes to the county on time, and the county then collects a list from the fire department of those who received points and receives a refund of 10 to 100 percent of the taxes paid.

“The Chester County Active Volunteer Tax Credit Program is based on a points system that is earned for making emergency calls, training, attending meetings, public education activities, serving in leadership roles and other activities such as fundraising,” the county said in a statement.

In October 2023, the Chester County Legislature passed The Active Volunteer Real Estate Tax Rebate Ordinance Commissioners for volunteer fire departments and EMS agencies.

Sixty percent of the total number of people, or 355, who are eligible for the county’s 2024 tax credit, as reported by their respective first responder agencies, took advantage of the program. The total estimated Chester County tax credit for all 355 applicants is more than $167,000, according to county data.

Volunteers may be rescuers, members of the fire or ambulance service administration, or both.

Chester County Treasurer Patricia Maisano collects property taxes and commented on the initial success of the tax relief program: “Chester County was the first county in southeastern Pennsylvania to implement the property tax relief and it is encouraging that a significant number of individuals and families will be able to recover some or all of their county tax bill as a direct result of their incredible service to our community.

“The responsibility they take on — keeping family, friends and neighbors safe — takes extensive training and time. Rewarding that dedication is the right thing to do, not only for today’s volunteer first responders, but for generations to come.”

Chester County Board of Commissioners Chairman Josh Maxwell is a supporter of the program.

“This property tax credit is one of the most comprehensive tax incentive programs in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the only program of its kind in southeastern Pennsylvania,” Maxwell said. “Our volunteers are here for us 24/7, saving lives, and they deserve it.

“They give back to our communities in such an important way, and we get to give back to them in the form of a rebate.”

If you are considering volunteering or would like more information, please visit the West Chester Fire Department website at www.wcfiredept.org