HARRISBURG, Pa. - With a critical shortage of volunteer firefighters, some National Guard members find themselves stepping up to serve in another uniform.
The volunteer firefighter shortage is so serious that in 2018 the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors addressed the issue in their 2017-2018 policy report calling for legislative action.
Chief Warrant Officer 3, Kenneth A. Phillips, targeting officer for the 28th Infantry Division, has served as a volunteer since he was 16 years old in Highspire, Pennsylvania.
"My twin brother suggested it so we went down to the Highspire Fire Department to check it out and were immediately drawn into it," Phillips said. "The action, excitement and sense of helping out in the community were what drew us in but the brotherhood is what kept us in."
Phillips has served 36 years as a volunteer firefighter. He currently is serving with the 28th Infantry Division in Kuwait with Task Force Spartan.
"What works for recruiting in one community may not have an effect in another. Getting adults with full time jobs, hobbies and other interests to become active in their local fire department is next to impossible," said Phillips. "The current group of volunteers won't be around forever, so it's vitally important to the community that we recruit and train our replacements in order for the department to continue to provide its services."
Phillips said in his department they focus on recruiting junior firefighters from the high school and on getting live-in firefighters from Penn State Harrisburg. They offer the students a place to live within a short commute to campus, and pay for their training to attain National Fire Protection Association, Firefighter 1 certification.
"Guard members and reservists who are also volunteer firefighters serve both their nation and their communities," said Acting Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Bruce Trego. "In a society where everyone has so many commitments that require so much of their time, the fact that they dedicate what little free time they have to help others, and to maintain the training required to do so, is admirable."
"Serving in the volunteer fire service is very similar to serving in the military," said Phillips. All the same rules apply - discipline, esprit de corps and trust in each other to do our jobs on the fire ground."
Lt. Matt Powers, also serving in Kuwait, became interested in firefighting to help his community and has served for the past 15 years in a variety of roles such as assistant chief, firefighter, EMT, HazMat Technician and other rescue roles.
"It's a challenge to get volunteers," Powers said. "Firefighting is a significant dedication of time and it often does not fit into many people's lives, especially the training time dedication. I personally just make the time for it."
Powers said his fire company conducts various community activities and open houses to attempt to recruit. He noted that the discipline, dedication and camaraderie of the military is similar in the fire service.
"The fire department is another home really and members are family," said Powers. "You tend to grow close to people when you are in high-stress situations with them."
Spc. Tyler Schaffer, Port Allegeny, Pennsylvania, joined the Pennsylvania National Guard and his local volunteer fire company in the same month when he was 17.
"I joined the Guard as a firefighter and was trained in crash/rescue at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas," said Shaffer. "The same month I joined the Guard the guys on the local department asked me to join and said they needed me, so I did. I have been serving with them for five years now."
Shaffer would later change jobs and serve in the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1st Battalion, 112th Infantry, as a sniper but all his training as a firefighter is still being put to use in his local community.
"Service in my local volunteer company helps me give back to my community," said Shaffer. "Like the military, you can count on these guys. We are like-minded people who want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves."