Capital region firefighter recruitment campaign targets junior volunteers

At 16 years old, Nicholas Silcox volunteers as a junior member at Hampden Township Volunteer Fire Company, and the Capital Region Council of Governments is looking for 100 others like him.

The organization kicked off its 100 Teens-to-Lifesavers Challenge at HACC Wednesday evening.

This initiative is designed to recruit 100 new junior members between 21 participating fire companies in the capital region by November of next year.

The 100 Teens-to-Lifesavers Challenge comes as part of the council’s larger four-year firefighter recruitment campaign funded by a $2.2 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant that kicked off in 2022 and will run through 2025.

Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner Thomas Cook said he’s spent the last year traveling across the state to speak with fire and EMS agencies and believes fire services are “in a crisis.”

“Whether I’m talking to a volunteer organization, career organization or combination department, the most common themes I hear relate back to lack of resources, lack of resources to replace or repair outdated equipment, turnout gear, provide adequate training and more, and of course I hear about the lack volunteers,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges facing fire departments today is recruitment.”

Each year, the campaign hopes to recruit 50 new volunteers, for a total of 200 new members by the time it concludes.

“Today, I’m happy to report that we have met and exceeded the original goal thus far in the grant program,” SAFER Grant Program Manager Scott Ryno said Wednesday.

Since the campaign’s April 27, 2022, start, 129 volunteers have stepped up at the participating departments, he said.

With a prior recruitment competition between West Shore and East Shore companies and additional media campaigns, the council’s newest initiative focuses on bringing more teens into the service, aided by Act 155 that passed last year.

Nate Silcox, Nicholas’ father, president of the Hampden Township Board of Commissioners and chair of the council’s advisory committee, said the approval of the new state legislation allows junior firefighters to be trained on live fire burns at the age of 17 under the supervision of a credential state fire instructor and with the permission of their parents and fire chief.

“Up to this point, junior firefighters were … able to take all firefighter one training except for live burns and this served as an impediment to completing their training,” he said.

The change will enable teens to get a head start on the certification process, allowing them to be trained and ready to help save lives by the time they turn 18, the council said in a news release.

Nicholas said since joining Hampden Township’s fire department, he’s learned how to set up ladders and arrange hoses.

Caleb DuBose, 18, of New Cumberland, initially joined New Cumberland Fire Department as a junior member last May as a joke after a friend recommended getting involved.

After almost a year of service, he plans to go career.

“It’s a lot of work, but all the work that you put into it is super rewarding,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how big or small that reward is, the simple waves, the hellos, the thank yous, it’s so awesome to interact with everybody.”

Nino Naurer, 17, a junior member with Progress Fire Company in Dauphin County, sees the value of recruiting more junior members through the campaign.

“The older generation is phasing out, and with that we’re losing a lot of great knowledge and experience,” he said. “We’re struggling to get numbers, so if you’re about it and you want to learn, it’s definitely a great idea.

While the 100 Teens-to-Lifesavers Challenge targets junior members, departments continue to seek volunteers of all ages.

New Kingstown Fire Company benefited from some of that variety when dad and daughter Joden and Callie Yohn joined the department about three months ago.

Joden Yohn said he wanted to join two years prior but Callie, 16, worried he’d get hurt.

Then Callie started dating one of the members.

“She decided she wanted to join,” Joden Yohn said. “I wanted to already, so we kind of made that step together.”

Now, it’s his turn to worry about her.

“She can’t go inside yet, but whenever we both decide we are able to go inside and she’s able to, I know the father in me is going to come out and if it’s gets too scary, too hairy in there I’m going to end up probably pulling her out and saying you’re sitting this one,” Joden Yohn said.

Callie said it’s “pretty meaningful” volunteering alongside her dad.

“I’m really close to my dad,” she said. “He knows basically everything about me, so it’s great. I love working with him.”

Joden Yohn said the two do everything together from hunting to fishing. Now, they’ve added firefighting to the mix.

“Just get out there and do it,” Callie said.