The following was published in the Main Line Life and Main Line Times:
LOWER MERION– Since the first permanent buildings were constructed hundreds of years ago in what would be called Lower Merion Township, men and women were counted on to fight fires in a non-paid, volunteer system.But now, some are worried that the long honored tradition of volunteer firefighters leaving jobs and families around the clock is threatened.
"The volunteer system as we know it is failing," Lower Merion Commissioner Lance Rogers said by phone last week. "What we in the township want to do is keep the volunteer system in place."
Rogers, who is chairman of the township's Fire Committee, said there were about 152,000 volunteer firefighters statewide 20 years ago. Today, there are only 70,000.
Like other areas of the state, Lower Merion also has fewer firefighters than it had 20 years ago.
According to township figures, Lower Merion Township currently has 272 volunteer firefighters in its seven companies. Just a few years ago, there were more than 300.
Although there hasn't been a recent study to show how much it would cost taxpayers if the township had to convert to a paid fire service, Rogers estimated that taxes could be forced up by 40 to 50 percent.
For that reason, Rogers and others in the township are launching new efforts to bring more people into volunteer service. Last week, the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners approved a program that will give free parking to firefighters. Beginning in January 2008, firefighters who make 25 percent of their company's calls will receive a parking pass that can be used at all metered parking spaces throughout the township.
"This is one small way for us to show that we appreciate what they do," Rogers said.
Firefighters say the plan might help. "I think it's a great idea," said Lower Merion Fire Chief Charles McGarvey. "It shows that the commitment and the dedication of these guys is recognized."
Another big problem facing the volunteer force is a lack of financial support from the community.
"The biggest issue I see is that businesses and apartment house [landlords] are not stepping up [with donations]," McGarvey said.
Through fund-raisers, individual fire companies collect donations that help in the purchase of equipment. A new ladder truck costs fire companies about $800,000.
The cost of an engine truck runs about $400,000.
The individual companies are also required to purchase the firefighting gear worn by the volunteers. The cost of fully equipping one firefighter can run from $10,000 to $20,000.
"It's time for Lower Merion residents and business owners to step up and support our firefighters," Rogers said. "It's an essential part of safety in the township."
McGarvey said one of the best ways for residents and business owners to help is to look for the donation request forms sent out by the various companies, then contribute.