08 June 2005

Too Many Fire Companies?

First it was the City of Pittsburgh closing Fire Stations around the city for the sake of a balanced budget so we're told. Will this begin to spread to the rural areas next, or, is consolidation the answer? When Governor Rendell decides that your Fire Company no longer deserves any state funding, will it be able to survive? Read the article below and post your comments at the end using the "Comments" link.

State has too many fire companies, report says
Wednesday, June 08, 2005By Bill Toland, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG -- All the summer carnivals and Friday evening bingo games in the world won't be able to rescue the state's thousands of volunteer firefighter companies, many of which are facing grave funding and manpower shortages, according to a report issued yesterday.

The report urges the volunteer companies to share resources, promote regional partnerships and, in some cases, consolidate two or more small departments into larger ones. The next three years may be "the most critical in the history of the state's fire service community," said state Fire Commissioner Edward Mann. The state, he said simply, "has too many fire companies."

But the report also warned that effecting such change will be difficult. Mergers, whether they're fire companies, school districts or entire municipalities, are politically unpopular. Socially and culturally, people like the neighborhood fire hall, especially in Western Pennsylvania, where fire hall wedding receptions and school dances are still common.

The 156-page report, issued by the state's nonpartisan
Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, contains recommendations that are mirrored by virtually every other study on the issue, including one presented to the state Senate early this year. Recommendations to broadly "regionalize" volunteer fire companies date back to at least 1976, though little progress has been made toward that goal.

This report, which surveyed fire chiefs and emergency officials across the state, said many fire companies duplicate services and equipment, consuming resources that could be better spent elsewhere, or at least cooperatively. The report also cited a competitive spirit between companies that can be detrimental. Companies hold competing fund-raisers, and sometimes buy expensive equipment just because the neighboring company has also bought it.

"Remember the saying 'Keeping up with the Joneses?' " one survey respondent asked. "Many departments are deep in that tradition, and also deep in debt." Another anonymous respondent claimed, "Funds [are] being spent on equipment that is 'cool,' rather than necessary."

Despite the reports of duplication, the state doesn't have a firm grasp on what companies own what equipment. The report suggests the state keep better inventory of fire companies' resources. It also recommends the state look into creating new funding streams for volunteer fire companies to draw from -- a new tax on homeowners insurance policies, or an increase in existing fire taxes.

Manpower is just as big a problem as revenue. The number of volunteers staffing the state's fire companies has dropped like a stone. In 1976, there were about 300,000 volunteer firefighters. Three decades later, there are 72,000, most of whom spend more time raising money than fighting fires.

While the number of firefighters has dropped, the number of fire companies has remained relatively steady, with only a handful of consolidations over the last decade. Allegheny County is the chief when it comes to volunteer fire companies, with 196 of them, more than in any other Pennsylvania county, according to the report. That's one fire company for every 3.7 square miles, or more than one per municipality. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has nearly 2,400 volunteer departments, more than in any other state by far.

Many of the volunteer groups came to be as Pennsylvania was first settled, starting in Philadelphia and spreading westward. They cropped up in mill towns, in small farming settlements and all points in between. As population migrated to the suburbs, volunteer companies migrated there, too, while the stations left behind continued operating. The long tradition of relying on volunteer firefighters, rather than professional ones, today saves Pennsylvania taxpayers about $6 billion a year in salary and health care costs.

But the combination of too many firehouses with not enough firefighters in them has created "a looming public safety crisis." Many of the fire chiefs who responded to the survey said that there have been times when their fire company couldn't quickly respond to a call, because no volunteers were available when the call came in. Some survey respondents were leery of mergers, or even the consolidation of equipment. Response times would go up, making the community less safe. A respondent also said that mergers and the resulting closures "will not result in an influx of volunteers but will result in a decrease, [due] to the loss of home rule and the distance that must be traveled to the fire stations."

Even when firefighters are receptive to the idea of consolidation, sometimes things don't go so smoothly. The Jefferson Fire and Rescue association, a nonprofit cooperative of four fire companies in Jefferson Hills, was sued by two of its member companies, Floreffe and Gill Hall volunteer fire departments, this spring. The umbrella group was put together in the 1990s.

The report said that while fire protection services are often delivered ineffectively, firefighters themselves are doing the best they can while drawing from a dwindling pool of volunteers. One respondent noted that many male-dominated volunteer service organizations -- Elks, Masons, Rotary groups -- are having their own difficulties recruiting new members.

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