WHITEHALL TWP., Pa. - "Time is of the essence. Fire multiplies four times a minute," said Whitehall Township Fire Chief David Nelson.

Nelson says it's a statistic that residents of Pennsylvania Street saw play out Monday.

But while no two fires are exactly the same, Nelson says the staffing crisis faced by his volunteer fire department remains a challenge, and is getting worse by the day.

"On a regular structure fire, it takes roughly 21 people to do the job, and you know just yesterday, we did not have 21 people to do that job," Nelson said.

Nelson says the department has two paid firefighters, himself and the deputy fire marshal. The rest of the fire staff is all-volunteer - roughly 80 or so people - and only half of them are active, spread out among four fire stations.

Nelson says peak call times are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., when most people are working.

So should something big happen, like a fire at the Lehigh Valley Mall, "we don't have the staffing to cover that. We just don't. We would have to call mutual aid from all over the county just to get assistance to get that done," Nelson said.

By comparison, Whitehall firefighters cover nearly three times the territory of their brothers in Easton, which has a fully paid fire staff.

Nelson says township leaders are aware of the crisis and are looking at grants or a possible fire tax to hire more firefighters.

"What we're looking at is we would like to see some type of combination fire department. This combination fire department is where we would staff one of our stations with four people on during that day. One would be a company officer and three would be firefighters," Nelson said.

Nelson says the 12 firefighters needed for that combination fire department would come at a price tag of about $860,000.

He says something has to be done now, as the average age of his volunteers is 45 to 55. So in about 10 years, he says this could be even more of a crisis.

But Whitehall is not alone. He says it's a problem faced by volunteer fire companies everywhere.

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