Family and personal relationships bring most volunteers into local fire companies.
Keeping them there and turning them into active firefighters and rescue personnel takes time and dedication. About half of them stay through the years-long process.
Southern End fire companies are working together to make the lengthy training process easier for new recruits.
One way is to make it more convenient for the volunteers to complete the classes they need. Rather than sending them to the county's main fire school, the local companies have developed satellite training sites.
"We have a Southern End training group. We have the training at our firehouse with members from other companies or we do it at other stations," Quarryville Fire Company Lieutenant Andrew Lavin said. In addition to Quarryville, Bart, Refton, Rawlinsville, Robert Fulton, Christiana, and Willow Street participate in the program.
The learning process is lengthy.
"When they come in, they get a rookie book, the history of the fire company, an apparatus check list," Lavin said. "They learn about hose lines, how to wear their gear properly, everything they need to get ready to fight fires."
The final step is only available to volunteers who are 18 or older.
"That's when they can go into the burn building," Lavin said.
The burn building is, itself, fireproof. That allows real fires to be set in its rooms. That gives volunteers the opportunity to fight real fires under controlled conditions. Completing that course also sees the firefighters certified to wear air packs. The self-contained breathing apparatus allows them to enter smoke-filled buildings and work around hazardous materials incidents.
Although they are not allowed to go into burning buildings or work to free people trapped in vehicle accidents, at Quarryville, junior firefighters are allowed to respond to calls. "They have to stay with an officer or a senior firefighter," Lavin said.
Attracting new firefighters has become a challenge for the local companies.
"We get about one [new member] a month," Lavin said "Right now, we have five juniors [firefighters who are younger than 18] and another handful of probationary members. … A lot come in due to family members being involved. We're lucky because we have a lot of that."
Recuiting is not going as well at neighboring Bart Township Fire Company, Chief George LeFevre said.
"We are in the county [recruiting program] but we have not picked up one new member from that," LeFevre said. "Mostly we get family members and friends. If we get a new member, it is a friend of somebody who's already here or a family member."
The lengthy training process discourages some people from joining.
"We have to go with the state regulations. If we tell somebody about the training they have to do, a lot of them say they don't have time for that," he said.
The Georgetown-based company is always looking for additional help, the chief said.
"We're always looking for new members. We can use people to help with administration as well as fight fires. We really need help everywhere," LeFevre said.
Robert Fulton recently added two new members, Chief Phil Smith said.
"Right now, we have four or five junior members and they are in training now," he said.
Keeping those new members involved can be a challenge.
"People don't realize how much training we have to do now," he said. "Our retention rate [of new members] is about 50 percent. … We can never get enough new members."