Even before the pandemic, Pennsylvania was facing an extreme shortage of volunteer firefighters. According to a state legislative report, there were 300,000 volunteers during the 1970s. By 2018, that number had dwindled to 38,000.
“Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen a decline in the number of volunteer firefighters on a national basis. … And, of course, it seems like it’s very pronounced in Pennsylvania,” said Steve Hirsch, chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Recently, membership shortages have caused fire companies in Bucks and Delaware counties to merge and consolidate. In Montgomery County, one volunteer fire company is facing closure altogether.
On Dec. 16, the Cheltenham Township Board of Commissioners voted to decertify the Ogontz Fire Company as one of the five volunteer squads serving the municipality, effective immediately — after 128 years of service.
The township cited recent studies regarding its fire infrastructure and a recommendation from the fire marshal that said the company had failed to meet requirements for an active firefighting force of at least 20 members and a qualified chief. Though the Ogontz Fire Company was aware of those issues and working to solve them, members were caught off guard by the closure decision.
“It went into place that night. And we were unaware that it was even going to be up for discussion. It wasn’t anything we were expecting,” said Art Gordon, president of the Ogontz Fire Company.
Though the fire company can no longer respond to calls, the order to close won’t be official until March 17. Since December, the company’s firefighters have rallied to meet both requirements. Gordon said it now has a force of 22 and a qualified chief, but the township hasn’t budged.
In an open letter to residents of Cheltenham, township manager Robert Zienkowski said that the company was asked throughout 2020 to provide a plan to address the problems but never did.
In 1736, Benjamin Franklin founded the Union Fire Company, and Philadelphia became the birthplace of volunteer firefighting. The city has long since shifted entirely to a career force, but the vast majority of firefighters in Montgomery County are volunteers.
“There are no fire departments in Montgomery County that are 100% career, such as what you would see in the city of Philadelphia, where there’s no volunteers whatsoever. Every department here in Montgomery County uses volunteer firefighters to some extent,” said Todd Stieritz, public affairs coordinator for the county’s Department of Public Safety.
With more than 37,000 residents, Cheltenham is Montgomery County’s third most populous municipality. It is still served by the Cheltenham Fire Company, the Glenside Fire Company, the La Mott Fire Company, and the Elkins Park Fire Company, which together make up the all-volunteer Cheltenham Township Fire Department.
In August, a five-year strategic financial management report put several of Cheltenham’s services under the microscope. It recommended that the township “evaluate opportunities for efficiencies” once a fire study was completed in November.
The Cheltenham Township fire department analysis found widespread volunteer shortages and redundancies in coverage at the companies, and offered recommendations including the hiring of a municipal fire chief and the association of the La Mott, Elkins Park, and Ogontz stations. According to the analysis, an association is an “agreement of two or more companies to combine and administer similar activities through an umbrella organization.”
The township chose to decertify the Ogontz Fire Company instead.
“We understand the concern,” fire company president Art Gordon said. “But we don’t understand the bold move of making this decision, one: during a pandemic, when you need every volunteer you can get. And then secondly: because of the pandemic, it’s not easy to recruit new members.”
According to Gordon, even some members of his crew, who had relatives with preexisting conditions, did not feel comfortable responding to calls because of COVID-19. From last March to July, Ogontz did not get a single new recruit.
The township has told the members of Ogontz they could join the other companies, but Gordon said that for many of the experienced firefighters, this is home and will likely be their final stop.