BY ERIC G. BACHMAN
As our communities grow, we must meet increased service demands. When technology changes, we must keep abreast so that we are not caught off guard. When faced with a challenge, we must look at all avenues that might help us overcome the obstacles in our way.
In the fire service, we can control some things, such as our attitude, work ethic, and enthusiasm for the job regardless of whether we are career or volunteer firefighters.
However, there are many factors outside our control that compromise our abilities to do a better job. Staffing is one of them. In a career department, you cannot hire as many firefighters as you would like. In a volunteer department, you cannot make people join.
A second factor is funding. No fire department has all of the money it needs. Funding issues have a tremendous influence on many aspects of our departments: Whether we will have adequate and appropriate fire trucks, equipment, personal protective equipment, and training is at the mercy of funding.
Many communities have reached their growth limit. They are fully developed and no new tax ratables can be added. The only way to increase funding is to raise taxes. Most volunteer organizations are not supported by a fire tax and rely on types of solicitation that yield limited financial return. Areas that may not see any substantial growth or that are landlocked may have to operate with the same level of funding for many years to come. Usually the growth of funding is not consistent with the rise in operating expenses.
When faced with financial constraints, we sometimes have to rethink our purpose, vision, and capabilities. In the late 1990s, the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, found it necessary to reevaluate our station’s capabilities. The volunteer response from home dwindled significantly. To overcome the lack of home volunteer responders, we initiated a live-in program that would have members live at the fire station, given free room and board in exchange for ensuring a quick response to calls and consistent maintenance of equipment. We furnished a small bunk room to accommodate the live-in volunteers and their personal belongings. It was a successful program. More volunteers joined, and other rooms were commandeered to house more live-in members. A conference room and an administrative office were transformed into living quarters. With eight live-in members and more volunteers interested in participating, we found our company in a quandary with limited housing accommodations for residents-limited restrooms, showers, personal storage areas, and kitchen facilities compromised living conditions.
We developed building renovation plans and initiated a capital improvement fund drive to expand the facilities. The project was easy to justify to residents and municipal officials; we showed how the live-in program had greatly improved member recruitment and emergency response times. In 2001, we broke ground for a major building renovation and addition, not only for the live-in wing but also to address concerns about the apparatus bay related to the height and weight of fire apparatus acquired in the future.
In November 2002, the company officially marked the conclusion of the construction phase. We now had five double-occupancy, dorm-style rooms; an overflow bunk room for casual stays; and four new shower/bathroom facilities. When the building was complete, the live-in space was full, a testament to the need for the project. Because of the great interest in the program, we maintained a waiting list for new members.
The renovation did not come without a price, however. Although the fund drive for the building project yielded more revenues than usual, the $1 million-plus project necessitated a mortgage. This financial liability set the tone for the manner in which funds would be handled for many years, especially with regard to apparatus replacement.
Located in Manheim Township, Eden is one of three independent volunteer fire companies that serves the township. In 1992 a Fire Council comprised of nine members-including three municipal officials, three fire department representatives (one from each fire company), and three citizens-at-large-was established. Its purpose was to monitor spending, eliminate potential duplications, and improve relationships among the stakeholders and service to the community.
Through policy and other guidelines, the group developed an apparatus replacement plan. Each company was assigned to maintain specific front-line apparatus. Eden was to staff an engine, a truck, and a rescue vehicle. The other two companies had their specific apparatus types as well. Each front-line apparatus was placed on a replacement schedule of 15 years, and a unit schedule was published. A benefit of this cooperative agreement was that the municipality agreed to contribute one-third of the base price for each apparatus replacement on the list. As long as they abided by the Fire Council’s guideline policies, the fire companies could count on this important apparatus funding source. The plan did not include utility vehicles or chiefs’ cars. Those vehicles were to be purchased at the full expense of the respective fire company with money derived from annual fund-raising drives.
In 1997, Eden replaced its 1975 pumper as part of the replacement plan; the rescue unit was slated to be replaced in 2004. The 102-foot ladder tower was scheduled to be replaced in 2009. That 15-year cycle would continue to ensure up-to-date equipment as well as maintain a reasonable resale value.
In 2001, the need for expanded facilities far outweighed the need to replace apparatus. Because of the declining response of volunteers from home, having state-of-the-art apparatus in the station without anyone to staff them would have been meaningless. In 2004, when it came time to replace the 1990 rescue, we found ourselves in a static financial situation. The district we protected had grown to the point where the potential for additional growth was limited. In addition, the prospect for increasing our future financial income through our usual fund-raising practices was bleak.
We put off replacing the 1990 unit for a year or so, to monitor income improvements and pursue other endeavors that could possibly support two large expenditures within the next five years. The apparatus replacement committee, however, continued its work on speccing a replacement unit so that the order could be placed when the company’s leaders were confident of financial stability. With no great improvement in finances, company leaders did not think it was feasible to replace a $650,000 rescue vehicle in the next year and a $1 million truck three to four years thereafter.
The change in direction was announced at a special meeting. After much discussion, the new plan was overwhelmingly well-received. The membership agreed to sell its rescue and ladder truck and replace them with a TDA. The committee worked diligently to design a new unit and develop a financial and an implementation plan.
The Fire Council, which had to approve the plan, was given a formal presentation of the concept. Among the selling points included were that the plan would save money in the long run through lower maintenance costs, eliminating the need to have to replace two units in the future, and in cutting equipment costs by eliminating redundancy in equipment common to the apparatus such as self-contained breathing apparatus and other equipment used in rescue and truck company activities.
The board approved the plan; municipal officials congratulated the company for its forward-thinking and money-saving measures. The resale of the rescue and the ladder tower and the municipality’s providing a substantial percentage of the cost made the financial liability more palatable.
WORKING OUT THE NEW PLAN
We ordered the TDA in the summer of 2005. The concept was certainly different and created some issues that had to be addressed. As an example, driver training for a TDA is different from that to which the truck company was accustomed. We contacted a friend of the fire company who owned a 1968 TDA. He agreed to provide his truck for driver training. Another associate of the fire company experienced in operating a TDA was tapped to develop the driver training program. From September 2005 through March 2006, while the new TDA was being constructed, the members concentrated on learning and mastering TDA driving techniques in preparation for the day the new TDA would arrive.
In March 2006, the company took delivery of a 2006 100-foot TDA (photo 1). For three months, members concentrated on improving their skills through practical evolutions within the district. The benefits of the TDA exceeded expectations. Although longer than the ladder tower, the TDA is more maneuverable and allows access to more areas, especially in densely constructed townhouse, condominium, and commercial complexes.
1. Photos by author.
The equipment carried on the TDA exceeds what was carried on the 1990 rescue and the 1994 tower ladder combined. More stabilization (photo 2), hydraulic (photo 3), and pneumatic equipment (photo 4) are carried on the TDA than on the 1990 vehicle. More ventilation tools (photos 5, 6), salvage equipment, rope rescue equipment (photo 7), and rapid intervention team (RIT) equipment are also carried on the TDA than on the 1994 truck.
The functionality of the apparatus, especially in regard to rescue capabilities, is great. Equipped with three hydraulic power plants, personnel are able to operate seven hydraulic tools simultaneously. The front bumper of the TDA has two preconnected hydraulic tools as well as a 12,000-pound winch (photo 8). The 1990 rescue vehicle was limited in this regard; it had one preconnected tool and no winch (photo 9).
Operating the TDA is vastly different from what the membership had been used to. Not including the driving aspect, the company went from operating out of a platform to a stick. Since 1979, when the company first got into the truck business, it operated out of a platform. The operational considerations when using a stick are different; however, the company spent a great amount of time retraining personnel on straight stick operations. The company is fortunate to have 10 members certified as Pennsylvania State Fire Academy instructors who can provide training in specialized areas.
Some area chiefs had reserved feelings on the efficiency and effectiveness of the TDA. Company officials were sympathetic to the external opinions. To better educate mutual-aid fire officials on the TDA’s capabilities, the chiefs invited to an open meeting at a local conference center 17 mutual-aid companies for whom the 1990 and 1994 units had been resources. Representatives from 14 of the invited companies attended. A formal presentation was made to explain the concept and the TDA’s capabilities, to address other concerns, and to clarify any misconceptions. The perspective of those who attended the meeting changed. They offered many positive comments after the meeting and in follow-up phone calls days after. Officials offered to present a “show and tell” of the TDA at their stations to promote its effectiveness in responses to their areas.
The ultimate success or failure of this concept, for this area anyway, remains to be seen. The new unit will test the volunteer service, especially with regard to driver staffing. Two drivers (tractor and tillerman) are needed; ensuring that two drivers will always be available is challenging, even with the organization’s live-in program. Times are always changing, and we must identify ways in which these changes affect our communities and adjust our services. Sometimes we have to look beyond the ordinary and make drastic changes.
We are constantly forced to do more with less and must develop ways to persevere and improve. The public often scrutinizes public services to ensure fiscal responsibility. After all, it is their money. We must keep an open mind and keep the organization moving forward. We need to forecast our future by reviewing the past. As communities and technologies change, so should our department profile. Some changes may be unpopular; however, if they are in the best interest of the public, we need to be realistic and progressive. Tradition has its place in the fire service, but we must continue to evaluate our comfort zones and how they are affecting our ability to serve in the most effective manner.
ERIC G. BACHMAN, CFPS, a 24-year veteran of the fire service, is former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the Lancaster County Emergency Management Agency and serves on the County’s Local Emergency Planning Committee. He is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a fire officer IV, fire instructor II, hazardous materials technician, and hazardous materials incident commander. He has an associate’s degree in fire science and professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the West Hempfield (PA) Fire Rescue Company.