January 30, 2019

Princeton Fire Department Plans To Combat Dwindling Volunteerism

By Donald Gilpin

With the numbers of volunteers in a steady decline over the past several years, Princeton may be heading away from an all-volunteer fire department to a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters.

In the coming months the Princeton Council will be considering proposals to hire personnel to help support the declining numbers of volunteer firefighters, according to Princeton Municipal Administrator Marc Dashield.

“We’re having problems getting volunteers,” said Robert Gregory, Princeton director of emergency services. “There’s been a significant drop in numbers.”

Gregory cited several challenges facing the fire department, including young, inexperienced drivers; lack of available affordable housing, with many volunteers living out of town and being unable to respond quickly; and Princeton being a town with over 50 percent professional people and travelers who are often not home.

“We’re not the only town that faces this,” Gregory said. He pointed out that
the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped over the past few years from 50-60 to only about 24-25.

“Every community is dealing with this,” Dashield said. “Many surrounding communities have gone to some sort of partially-paid arrangement for firefighters.”

Gregory pointed out that “a robust mutual aid plan,” with other area fire companies supporting Princeton, does pick up the slack to ensure adequate fire protection.

Princeton currently has three fire companies — Princeton Engine Co. 1, Mercer Engine Co. 3, and Princeton Hook and Ladder Co. — all operating out of one location on Witherspoon Street across from the municipal building. 

Gregory, who has been meeting with Dashield, the fire chief, and the three fire company presidents, says that one focus has been on more effective recruiting — teaming up with a recruiting company, identifying eligible 20-40-year-olds in the community, and developing strategies to increase the pool of volunteers.

“The University is a great support,” he said, noting that more than 30 University employees respond to calls, but they are usually available only during the daytime. He noted that nighttime and weekends are problematic. 

“Demographics drive the volunteer levels,” Gregory stated, explaining the need for short-term and long-term plans. “We need to decide at what point we need to transition to paid firefighters.”

With specific plans not yet formulated, Gregory and Dashield both declined to suggest possible costs to the town in moving away from an all-volunteer fire department.