PIKE COUNTY - A national epidemic is underway and officials in Pike County are working to find a solution on the home front. A continued shortage of volunteer firefighters, has led area representatives to consider a new marketing program to recruit and retain volunteers.
    The President and Creative Director of Co-oper8 Marketing Group Steven Powell spoke to officials at the Pike County Training Center August 23, about a program that has already inspired residents in Rockland County, New York to get involved in their area fire departments. Now, area officials are looking to start the initiative in Pike County.
    Pike County Commissioner Richard Caridi called the shortage of volunteer firefighters a “crisis.” No longer, can people wait for the state, he said because families, property and businesses, “are at stake.” County Commissioners Matt Osterberg and Karl Wagner were also present at the meeting. Caridi said, “We’re not just a bunch of politicians feeding bovine scatology,” because “we’re going to put our money where our mouth is.” Now, the commissioners will work with township supervisors and the business community to address the lack of volunteer firefighters and generate income.
    Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Edward Mann said recruiting and retention are two different issues that converge. There are ways to entice people, he said, but there are also obstacles as he often hears people complain about politics and a lack of leadership within departments.
    When he was an emergency medical technician in New York, Powell said he experienced the same problems and to address the shortage of volunteers, he received a grant that helped him develop a program that can help with recruitment and retention in Pike County. With a program already developed, he said a lot of money won’t be required. There will be a meeting next week however, to establish a budget for the campaign.
    The program, “We Are The Ones,” presents everyday persons, that the public knows, showing that they are the ones involved in the volunteer services. Everything that occurred in Rockland County, Powell said was real as the program uses real people. All that needs for the project to occur in Pike County, is the faces of the people that will be shown on billboards and videos. With 96 percent of all fire companies in Pennsylvania being volunteer, he called that “incredible.” But, almost 75 percent has decreased in the last 25 years. Volunteer fire companies, Powell said are about the “community, the environment, the comradery, the pride and satisfaction.” The program, “We Are The Ones,” he said, will work to keep those already trained involved, as they are important and very much needed.
    If people are waiting for the state to fix the recruiting and retention issue, Mann said they should stop because the state isn’t the place to turn for help. Although there have been “grand ideas,” and committees in the senate, that’s not the way to go because the “difficult piece is finding the money.”
    As fire departments do continuous fundraisers, and often the same persons participate in them, Mann said there are other options to save money. In the department where he volunteers, only certified firefighter ones, have leather helmets. Class A or service dress uniforms are given to certified firefighter twos. To recognize the work that all the volunteers do, there are monthly ice cream socials where peoples’ birthdays are celebrated and there are family picnics.
    The cost of career departments, Mann said is more than volunteer departments. He explained that volunteer fire services statewide, save local tax payers in excess of $3 billion “easily.” Mann gave a scenario where funding goes when departments are individually paid, and equipment is bought and maintained. An additional strength for volunteer departments, he said is that they are the, “social fabric of the community,” as there are wedding receptions, birthday parties and Santa riding on the fire truck. Although he doesn’t have the solution, Mann said the problem isn’t about money because volunteers need to know that their time and dedication is important and appreciated.
    Powell said recruitment and retention doesn’t have to be about money, as his program, “One of the Ones,” is about pride and respect from the community. The program is marketing, but it doesn’t “have to be brain surgery.” Instead, the program has to be done right and it can be inexpensive. Although the program won’t solve all of the departments’ problems, he said it will increase their recruitment and retention.
    A few concerns were discussed about the departments’ demographics and volunteers’ concerns about paying for fuel. Or, younger members staying in the area. One man said as kids make life decisions, “it’s kind of scary because we need financial assistance coming from somewhere.”
    With young adults leaving the area, Commissioner Matthew Osterberg said he understands the situation and that is why the commissioners are trying to bring employment to the area. “Multifaceted problems,” he said with a program like, “We are the ones,” hopefully it will entice people to get involved.
    One man said the public needs to know that the county and state supports the volunteers. Caridi answered that the commissioners are making a commitment to the public as they are looking to Powell’s program. Although Powell’s program will help, Caridi said it is, “simply the first step.” An issue all around, he said local legislators are aware of the lack of volunteers as they communicate often. But if there is no first step, what other options are there and if nothing is done, than the problem will only get worse.
    Caridi said the county has made the “commitment to step-up to the plate for the initial stages.”  Communicating with township supervisors and the community, he said, that it will be the public’s involvement that will make the difference.
    For more information visit www.c8group.com.