Our Opinion: Fast response to 911 calls not assured as volunteer firefighter numbers drop

In an emergency, minutes can seem like hours to anyone waiting for help.

So it’s concerning, to say the least, that certain municipal emergency responders in Luzerne County frequently fail to muster a crew in a timely fashion and get to a scene. County government officials are keenly aware of the trouble. Now, they’re trying to nudge, or perhaps shame, the crews with the poorest track records into improving their performance.

Lists of the most unresponsive crews will be posted online at www.luzernecounty911.com/nocrew.

Among the laggards topping the list in at least one of two recent reporting periods, with 20 or more “no crew” violations, were Ashley, Edwardsville, Mountain Top, Plymouth and West Wyoming. They were not alone. Others included Bear Creek/Buck Township, Freeland, Huntington Township and Nescopeck, according to an article Thursday in the Times Leader.

A single violation is deemed by state standards as unacceptable; a crew with a demonstrated pattern of no-show incidents potentially could lose its license.

But we don’t believe the county’s list should be used for punitive reasons. Not yet.

Instead, it should compel more conversation and debate about the underlying issue: Pennsylvania’s declining ranks of emergency volunteers.

The state, which in the 1970s tallied about 300,000 firefighters, more recently has closer to 50,000, according to estimates. A fire company near Mechanicsburg reportedly resorted to offering rent-free, dorm-like rooms in its station to attract young firefighters who pledge to respond to calls in exchange for a place to stay. Some companies have folded. Most gamely press on with fewer people, shouldering the responsibility of recruiting, fundraising, training and turning out when things go wrong.

In the long run, people in Luzerne County, like much of the commonwealth, will need to confront this public safety conundrum.

Is the answer a shift to more paid emergency services? Or can multiple volunteer crews be consolidated, then operate in larger districts?

Sadly, before communities and their elected officials act decisively on the matter, there might need to be a crisis – for instance, a giant, out-of-control aerial ship crossing the state, snapping power lines and causing havoc. But, no, something like that, or worse, could never happen, could it?