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Fueled by tradition: There's more to consolidating fire companies than closing stations and moving trucks

Wednesday, February 06, 2002

By Michael J. Dongilli

The local firehouse conjures up a collection of sentiments -- a bastion of protection, a friendly social hall hosting bingo games and parties, home to generations of firefighters who are proud to serve.

That's why many communities shudder at the suggestion that their volunteer fire company consolidate with another. Take away the building, merge one company's identity with another and, some believe, the spirit of the company dies.

Yet, such mergers are happening with increasing frequency as the economics of firefighting and a shortage of volunteers make it difficult to operate stations efficiently.

In some places, it has been done successfully.

An emotional business

When it comes to streamlining firefighting services, there's more to consider than the bottom line.

"There's no clear direction to take because you're dealing with business decisions that have an emotional component to them," said Michael Foreman, government policy specialist with the Center for Local Government Services, an operation of the state Department of Community and Economic Development. Among other things, the center helps communities evaluate their firefighting services and offers recommendations on how to improve efficiency.

Of Pennsylvania's 2,461 fire departments, all but about 100 are volunteer companies. Often, their proximity to each other and the fact that they provide identical services raise the question of just how many fire companies are needed in an area.

Pick a county in Western Pennsylvania, and Foreman rattles off a list of stations that are either merging or studying the possibility of doing so.

In most communities that the center studies, he said, some opportunity exists to consolidate at least the administration of fire companies, and in many places, there's a solid case to merge the companies entirely.

Frequently, Foreman said, "you've got duplication of existing services with respect to the number of service providers within a given area." That can cause problems and financial headaches for municipalities trying to ensure coverage for every inch of their communities, but unable to provide the funding to keep all of the stations equally outfitted.

"On the other hand," Foreman said, "there is a reason why fire stations are located on a certain site. The municipality is served in all areas kind of equally, rather than facilities being concentrated in a certain area where the response time [could be] affected. The stations are placed in areas relative to coverage, population and maybe even where most of the fires are."

O'Hara is just one local community struggling with equipping all of its fire companies.

For nearly a year, O'Hara council wrestled with how to fund requests from the Pleasant Valley and Parkview fire departments for new engines totaling more than $600,000. In 1999, the township set up an emergency equipment fund to help offset such costs, but the fund has a balance of only $450,000. After several sometimes strained meetings last year, council indicated at a workshop session in December that it would vote to buy both engines at an upcoming meeting. The trucks take a year to manufacture and, with some budget shifting, council believed it could have the money by then.

The vote never took place, however, after council heard from Guyasuta, the township's third fire department, which argued that the township had an even greater need for an aerial ladder truck. Currently, the township can use an aerial ladder truck through a mutual aid agreement with other municipalities. Council is now looking at a $750,000 purchase for just the aerial truck and is uncertain what to do about the two fire engines.

Several times last year, township Manager Douglas Arndt urged council to consider unifying the three departments to streamline expenses and eliminate multiple equipment purchases. He urged the creation of a municipally owned and managed department staffed by volunteers. Council didn't agree. Council President Marshall Treblow said any talk of consolidation should include a much broader area.

"We need more intergovernmental cooperation and we need to eventually start looking at regional solutions as opposed to township solutions," Treblow said.

Other communities also are grappling with costs, duplication of services and a lack of volunteers.

The Center for Local Government Services recently completed a study in Elizabeth Township and recommended that the number of departments be reduced from eight to five, said Joanne Beckowitz, township commissioner.

At the end of last year, two departments merged, and Beckowitz said it was only a matter of time until more are consolidated.

The township pays for the departments' insurance, workers' compensation and gasoline. It also gives each department $2,000 annually but, like most volunteer companies, the township's departments rely on fund raising.

Last year, the township dedicated one-half mill in property tax revenue for fire services. The tax brings in an additional $200,000 to be used exclusively for fire services, but how it is distributed hasn't been determined.

"They kept coming [to ask for funding], but somehow [their requests] just got passed by and shame on us for doing that," Beckowitz said. "They persisted and we answered finally."

Beckowitz said the township also set up a commission to look at all aspects of merging and funding for the fire departments.

In North Versailles, Ed McGuire, president of the township commissioners, wanted to make two stations out of the township's three.

"[The firefighters] made such an uproar over it all that we said we'd rescind [the consolidation proposal] until we have a study," he said. The commissioners are looking at a $1 million expenditure over the next three to four years for new pumper and ladder trucks. At one time, North Versailles had eight departments vying for funds.

"The study suggested to leave it at three departments for now, but in the future we should probably put it together into two or one, which is what we wanted to do originally," McGuire said.

Currently, the stations split the $25,000 the township gives them, and McGuire is taking a cue from Elizabeth Township on funding options to accommodate equipment requests.

"How do we help them money wise?" he asked rhetorically. "Go into bonding, put out a referendum, ask people if they want to raise their taxes half a mill, a quarter mill and put that aside. I think down the road we're going to have to combine."

Foreman said fire companies within a municipality should be treated equally.

"Ideally, a municipality should provide some level of parity when providing assistance," he said. "If it gets cumbersome, costly, if one station is wealthier than the other because of its fund-raising abilities, then you end up with unequal service providers and the stronger have to carry the weaker ones. If there are fire companies with lesser capacity by virtue of location or economics, then it would appear reasonable that the municipality act as an equalizer."

If it can. If it can't, then mergers might be the answer. Some of the towns currently working with the center and discussing consolidation are Belle Vernon, Jefferson Hills, Ligonier, Rochester Township and Unity.

Pride and tradition

Neither Beckowitz nor McGuire could say when mergers might take place in their towns. O'Hara has spent a year without making a decision on consolidation.

The difficulty in making a decision reflects the emotional issues involved in the matter, largely because of the pride and tradition associated with firefighting.

"That's what it is," Beckowitz said. "That's what stopped [us] for so long, the ego of it all."

McGuire said firefighters in his township feared that a merger would mean a loss of independence.

"They got upset because they wanted to keep their identities, that was the real problem," he said.

Steve Zamosky is chief of United Fire and Rescue, a department that formed when stations in Wall and East McKeesport merged in July 2000. The operation is running smoothly now, Zamosky said, but he understands how tensions and pride can delay consolidations.

"When the politicians become involved and try a heavy hand, you meet resistance because we are that independent. Mostly, fire companies were able to do this on their own. And we're our own worst enemy because we were doing it on our own."

Both the station in Wall and the one in East McKeesport remain open, but the boroughs save on insurance costs and on equipment and supply purchases. Zamosky was told to expect a 30 percent decrease in personnel, but it didn't happen.

As a combined force serving two boroughs, the firefighters respond to more calls, and activity is an important part of maintaining motivation and interest among volunteers.

"There's an adrenaline rush," Zamosky explained. "... They want to be at that accident or burning building. If there isn't sufficient work for those volunteers, they become bored. You can only train so much. You need the job."

He hasn't lost a member because of the merger, he said.

Another factor to be considered is the family ties that permeate fire station histories. Zamosky, for example, is a 40-year veteran whose father and uncle were chiefs before him. "My father had four brothers in the fire service. I have a brother, nephew and [several] cousins."

That type of family involvement is common in most companies, making the station almost a second home for firefighters. It's tough to give that up.

"Nobody really realizes the time they put in and how much hard work really goes into keeping the fire companies running because it's all volunteer and they don't have to be doing that," Beckowitz acknowledged.

Arndt said recognizing those sacrifices is what has kept O'Hara council members from reacting hastily.

"I think they're just torn between wanting to maintain the three departments that have served the township versus dealing with the economics," he said.

Zamosky agreed that the process of merging was painful and some issues still need to be worked out, but he recommends that any station faced with consolidation focus on its purpose.

"Neither company looked at survivability for itself," he said. "We looked at what we were supposed to be doing, which was public service. That's the key [to making a merger work]."

Michael J. Dongilli is a free-lance writer.

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