Volunteer Fire Department Consolidation in Pennsylvania

BY VICTORIA MIKULAN

Approximately 73 percent of the fire departments in the United States are volunteer-based, and their members total to about 800,000. In Pennsylvania, the fire departments are 96.1 percent volunteer, and the approximately 1,500 Pennsylvania volunteer fire departments produce a tax savings of about $6.0 billion a year for state and local governments, according to a report by the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee.1 However, many volunteer departments are struggling because of decreases in resources and funding.

These problems have seriously strained the volunteer fire service in areas throughout the country but especially in Pennsylvania. The proliferation of volunteer fire departments resulted in part from neighborhood rivalries. Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Ed Mann explains that some “white collar” fire departments would not respond to the “blue collar” neighborhoods, leading the latter neighborhoods to establish their own departments. Also, at one time, more departments were needed so that adequate units would respond to incidents in a timely manner. There were issues with response times because of the topography of the areas and the capabilities of the apparatus. These issues were resolved with the advances in these resources.

Today, many of these departments are suffering from severe staffing and funding shortages that sometimes prevent them from satisfactorily responding to incidents or providing adequate equipment for their departments. These departments respond to incidents short-handed and do not have personal protective equipment to protect their members. Naturally, this becomes a safety issue for residents and first responders.

Since today’s volunteer firefighters respond to a broader range of emergencies, from medical emergencies to terrorism incidents, more training is required. This is not easy for many volunteers and is one reason there has been a steady decrease of approximately 8,000 volunteers per year in Pennsylvania since 1975, according to Mann. However, many municipalities still depend on volunteers.

The overabundance of volunteer fire departments is a complex problem brought about by a variety of groups. Some aspects of this problem were caused by the volunteer departments. Resources, such as apparatus and specialized equipment, overlap unnecessarily in municipalities or bordering municipalities as a result of the desire to keep up with other departments. This money and these resources potentially could have been used elsewhere in a more efficient manner, and strained relationships among neighboring companies caused by pride might have been avoided.

NEED FOR ACTION

Some volunteer fire departments have looked to consolidation (even though it is an unpopular alternative) as a potential solution to the current problems. As the situation worsens, departments realize they must act. Formal mutual-aid agreements, mergers, regionalization, and consolidation are all potential solutions, and some of these moves can evolve into one another. These solutions require change and cooperation, and the levels of complexity vary. Consolidation, defined as two or more companies combining operationally, financially, and legally to create one unified company as a new entity with a new name and new by-laws, is one alternative. It is a time-consuming endeavor and can be difficult. However, an operational consolidation has many potential benefits, including increased efficiency and cost savings and improvement in the use of resources. Such a move can create improved service to the public.

Consolidations can take a few years to complete and may not always succeed. Many obstacles can make the process difficult, including turf wars, loss of volunteer membership, a belief that consolidation will eliminate positions, underlying cultural issues, loss of identity, loss of tradition, and the feeling that the department is “being taken over.” Many of these obstacles do not affect the quality of services the fire department will ultimately provide. Although consolidation can be risky, it is important to analyze each case on an individual basis to decide what the best option would be. Each case is unique. The most important concern should be to provide the best service to the public. Although the idea of consolidation is not new, the decline in resources has caused it to be more widely recognized, and volunteer firefighters are acknowledging that it is time to act.

Increasing demands and dwindling resources have caused the volunteer fire service to push its limits, causing members to burn out and departments to scramble to find resources so they can keep up with the response demand and provide efficient protection. Some fire departments have been looking into consolidation, which involves the blending of cultures and the loss of tradition. It is a complex process that requires more than just the input of the volunteer fire departments affected. Mann believes that the fire service is at its most critical point and that the Pennsylvania area has too many companies. He notes also that there has been a severe drop in members. In 1976, Pennsylvania boasted 300,000 volunteer firefighters; as of 2012, the number has gone down to about 50,000 volunteers, according to Mann. Despite the decline in volunteers, Pennsylvania has 2,400 volunteer departments, much more than any other state and more than one fire department per municipality. Although the majority of volunteer firefighters acknowledge that response times, funding, and staffing are issues, consolidation is not a popular option. However, more fire administrations are recognizing that consolidations may be necessary.

CHALLENGES TO CONSOLIDATION

Firefighters do not always respond well to consolidation, and there often are rivalries among companies. Firefighters tend to be less supportive of a consolidation forced by the local government. Yet, Mann says that support from the local government tends to make consolidation more successful. However, elected officials often do not want to get involved because of the negative political publicity that can result if a tax raise were needed, and the local fire chiefs do not want to get local officials involved for fear of losing their “power.”

Currently, there is a gap in knowledge and communication among fire departments, elected officials, and the public. There are many negative connotations surrounding the concept of consolidation. In other areas of the country, consolidations have been successful. Often, these departments faced similar obstacles and are looking at the same types of potential benefits and drawbacks. The idea of consolidation is often brought up with the goal of creating a more efficient response service.

Gary Frazier’s A Solution for Increased Efficiency and Service Consolidation states that the “complexity of modern firefighting and length of training volunteers required to meet community and safety standards” are contributing factors in department consolidation. It would enable departments to pool their resources.2

The goals of consolidation often are similar despite the size of the fire department. A consolidation in Paseo County, Florida, for example, sought to unify, improve, and equalize the fire service; centralize and reduce administration costs; avoid duplication; strengthen purchasing power; achieve a better insurance rating; and provide better training programs. (2)

Aother example is in Ada County, Idaho, where merger discussions were approached again in light of service duplication and cost comparisons and the fact that service levels were drastically different among agencies.3

Consolidation success occurred in the Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue, Oregon, merger that occurred in 1997. Three stable companies consolidated successfully, “improving service and lowering the tax burden.”4 This is a significant example because it shows that departments do not necessarily have to be in a poor position financially or operationally to consolidate and still see a benefit. Consolidating can improve on what already is working. It does not have to be a final effort to save a cause.

On the other hand, companies can also encounter difficulties when consolidating. The New York State Department guide “How to Consolidate Fire Protection” notes that many of these obstacles are cultural. They include the perceived loss of power/control, turf wars, and issues such as the name of the station and the color of the apparatus.5 These problems, which may seem petty to those not involved, can be the biggest stumbling blocks and the main reasons consolidations fail. Zelienople (PA) Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Scot Garing Jr. says egos are the biggest obstacles to consolidation because of “people losing control of their little piece of the pie.”

There is also the issue of governance. For example, in Pennsylvania, the General Assembly initiated the Emergency Medical Services [EMS] Act to “establish and maintain an effective and efficient EMS, which is accessible on a uniform basis to all PA residents and visitors of the Commonwealth.” (1) It ultimately designated the Pennsylvania Department of Health as the EMS lead agency for the commonwealth, and it was given the primary responsibility of implementing the act. The Department of Health’s Web site describes its responsibilities: “The department’s Bureau of Emergency Medical Services is responsible for the statewide development and coordination of a comprehensive system to prevent and reduce premature death and disability.”6 The EMS system is further broken down into 16 regional councils to guide their regions.

Currently, there is no comparable statute for the state fire service. The State Fire Commissioner’s Office oversees the training programs and certifications offered and assists with the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program, the Fire Company and Volunteer Ambulance Service Grant Program, the public education and information program, and other programs. Not having such a governing body has resulted in the state’s fire service lacking “clear and consistent statutory definition and standards and an overall direction for system planning and development.” Fire departments have to answer to multiple entities. Improvements need to be made for government, as in more concise and specific government entities. If the fire service were under one government office, there would be clearer lines of communication and an easier route to resources.

Some obstacles directly affect the operational services provided. Training standards are often a stumbling block for fire companies. As the Legislative Finance and Budget Committee’s report states, Pennsylvania has no set statute to efficiently and effectively govern the fire service; various sections of law (at both the state and municipal levels) govern the fire service, such as the State Fire Commissioner Act, the Municipalities Planning code, and the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Law. (1) However, this creates a lack of consistent definitions and guidance. The lack of state standards for firefighting training makes it possible for individual companies to establish their own. Other requirements for training stem from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for insurance coverage and legal protection. Even when using NFPA guidelines, departments may differ on what is sufficient training for a volunteer firefighter. Municipalities can set training requirements, but the fire company usually dictates them. Multiple departments in the same municipality can have varied training standards, and each company has reasons for maintaining that its way is the correct way. These conditions can cause tension in consolidation talks; deciding how much training to require affects volunteers’ time and safety. For a variety of reasons, the training-related obstacles are key factors in consolidation discussions.

SURVEY RESULTS

In a survey of approximately 30 western Pennsylvania volunteer firefighters, it was established that volunteer firefighters are recognizing the same types of obstacles and factors to consolidation. However, some differences in answers were significant because they represent the gaps in knowledge for firefighters. All volunteer firefighters involved with the consolidating companies need to have a voice. Without their input, the problem cannot be understood thoroughly and, therefore, cannot be answered adequately. No matter what the end result, the members are the people who will have to adapt and succeed in whatever changes may occur.

Although every volunteer fire company’s situation is different, there is often an overlap in how the companies operate. Many departments require the same types of equipment and resources to respond to emergency incidents that occur in their jurisdictions. Also, most departments use automatic aid for incidents that require specific units. Evaluating this situation is one way to understand what resources are in a department’s response area.

Local firefighters acknowledge the overlap of equipment. Evaluating each municipality’s needs and relationships with neighboring municipalities can enable companies to better understand what they do and do not need. It also can identify where consolidations need to occur. Consolidating resources is a way to ease financial difficulties. Many of these volunteer fire departments have been around for decades; they know what types of incidents occur in their areas and what would be pertinent to their needs. The culture of the volunteer fire service has had many believing that the department has to have the best and newest equipment to prove its worth to other departments. This cultural problem needs to be addressed from within the fire service.

Berkeley Hills (PA) Volunteer Fire Company Firefighter Michael Allaway summarized the problem: “The old adage of the U.S. Fire Service [as] 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress holds true. By holding on to outmoded organizational and municipal ideas, we are starting to fail in our core mission of protecting the public and their property.” In some areas, consolidation has been successful, but difficulties have been acknowledged. Adams Area (PA) Firefighter Richard Mann explains that Adams Area’s consolidation’s biggest obstacle was the attitude against consolidation and that it came down to convincing those members that the real meaning of their goals is to provide service to the community. Mann believes that his department has improved in the areas of pride and loyalty and that it is now a more cohesive unit. The Adams Area consolidation was ultimately successful in creating more efficient public safety for its residents.

Beliefs on who should consolidate are varied. Although a majority believed that it would be best for smaller companies or companies that reside in municipalities with multiple volunteer fire companies to consolidate, there is some support for widespread consolidation. Berkeley Hills Volunteer Fire Company Firefighter Scott Story believes that western Pennsylvania would be a premier starting point for volunteer fire department consolidations. Others believe that widespread consolidation will become necessary as well. Garing proposes the following: “Every fire department should consolidate with one other department. [This would] reduce the expenditures by half throughout the state. It’s plausible to an extent. There are some rural companies that would not be able to do that. I would say any fire department that is within 10 to 15 miles of another fire company should have to consolidate with that company.”

For others, the difficulty of consolidation was acknowledged, but so was the eventual necessity for it and the benefits that could result. Pittsburgh (PA) Assistant Chief Thomas Cook, who served as a volunteer firefighter and is currently an instructor, states:

I believe that where it makes sense, consolidation of fire departments in Allegheny County needs to occur. There is a significant waste of resources duplicating service. In my experience, mergers and consolidations do not save anyone money. But from an operational standpoint, it allows resources to be deployed in the community where they are most needed based upon risk analysis, not just because a fire company ‘wants’ to be a truck company or rescue company. Over extended time periods, this will save money by reducing the number of apparatus in the field. But I do not believe, except in very rare cases, that in Allegheny County there need to be closures of fire stations.

Overall, there is general agreement that resources are being duplicated in western Pennsylvania. There is a consensus that consolidations could increase efficiency and public safety, but firefighters differ about how it should be accomplished. Some believe that training, equipment, response times, and staffing would improve, providing improved public safety. When asked about alternatives to consolidations, some suggested paid departments, shutting down stations, more fundraising, and internal/external reviews of departments.

Some believe consolidation will become the only option, which means many changes could be coming for the volunteer fire service. The most important factor concerning consolidation is how it will affect the safety departments will provide. Some of the firefighters who believed that consolidations are the only solution also believe that providing less safety would not be an issue and would not occur. However, several firefighters in support of consolidation recognized potential safety drawbacks. Slower response times and gaps in coverage were the main concerns. There was also concern that rural company consolidations would provide less safety. Mount Troy Volunteer Fire Company’s Dave Moore Jr. stated that he believes consolidations will provide less safety if they fail to meet their predetermined goals, and Millvale Volunteer Fire Company Firefighter Richard Biernstein expressed concerns about making sure that all firefighters are trained at the same level. Story acknowledged potential safety drawbacks: “Consolidation is only as good as the foundation it is built on.” Local firefighters realize that it is not going to be an easy process.

Many firefighters also recognized that much of the problem comes from within. When asked about the biggest obstacles toward consolidations, the majority of firefighters answered tradition, pride, and attitude/understanding. Sturgeon (PA) Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Keith Delaney states:

There are so many factors that can have an effect on and be affected by consolidation. It can be a very daunting task for both fire departments and municipalities to identify each of these factors and weigh them not only separately, but also as a whole. This leads to a negative outlook on consolidation and an overall feeling that it is the last resort. Nobody wants to face the last resort.

Throughout the survey, the firefighters noted that the public, although not always having a clear and thorough understanding of what services are provided, expects a quick and professional response whenever they call 911. It is very important to keep the public informed and educated on consolidation matters. Some citizens may not care, but others will be very concerned as to how the level of service will change. Just as the lines of communication need to remain open and clear within the consolidating companies, the public needs to be kept informed as well.

Often, it is debated whether elected officials should be involved with consolidation discussions, but their input is necessary, according to Commissioner Mann. He explains that Pennsylvania is a commonwealth; therefore, public safety decisions are left to the local governments and citizens. In a situation already affected by power struggles, this can make it even tenser. The lack of cooperation among entities and groups does not provide the community with any more safety.

Local governments and elected officials need to become involved with consolidation, regardless of how volunteer fire departments feel toward it. The majority of volunteer firefighters had negative thoughts toward the elected officials, believing that they were not concerned or concerned only about the financial aspects and the choices that would get them reelected. If a fire company is going to enter into consolidation discussions, the ultimate goal has to be how to provide the best service for its response area. Mann says it is necessary for local governments to get more involved because Pennsylvania is a commonwealth. Decisions concerning public safety are ultimately left to the local government and the citizens. He does not believe that the commonwealth will enforce consolidations, but he notes that perhaps one day it will be able to put money into an incentive program. Mann says his experience has shown that when local government is involved, it usually means a more successful consolidation. Ultimately, Mann adds, the solution will come by working together:

At the end of the day, it is going to take a partnership between state [government], local [government], and the volunteer fire companies to level the problem off and fix with what we have. We have to do better with what we have. Look at the entire system-fire, EMS, and career. Take a system approach to it and make it better.

A countywide evaluation can be valuable in helping companies to recognize what resources and services are needed and where. Cook states, “A countywide deployment model needs to be created and the stations equipped and staffed as determined by the risk analysis used to develop the deployment model.” Such a study may be time consuming and costly, but it can look at the operations of volunteer fire departments and establish what departments are producing and providing for the public. This study would look at quantitative data provided by the companies; it would be able to take out some of the cultural obstacles to consolidation. Equipment and apparatus would need to be inventoried. Incidents would be broken down by response times, the average number of responders, and the types of incidents responded to (fires, motor vehicle accidents, hazardous materials, and so on). Training certifications would also need to be inventoried to see where responders are getting educated. Financial information would be analyzed as well, such as fundraising, savings, and debt load to see if one department’s financial problems would hurt another department if they took it on.

Such a deployment model would not be a fix-all solution. It could potentially match up companies for consolidation, but other factors need to be considered as well. There are guides for how to consolidate fire departments. This is where some of the cultural aspects of a department can be analyzed and understood and where firefighters can voice their concerns. These guides are valuable in keeping the lines of communication open and readily available. Without clear communication, consolidations will be set up for failure. It also helps to explain who should be involved in a consolidation and the factors that should be considered. You can develop a plan of action from these guidelines. One suggestion is to perform a SWOT analysis in which you identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. This can be a good way for fire departments to establish their levels of service. Since they are “guides” and not definitive answers, they can be good starting points for consolidation discussions.

Consolidations need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. However, surveying firefighters from different departments established that the majority feel that consolidations need to begin occurring for the survival of the volunteer fire service and the protection of the citizens. It is recommended that the volunteer fire service be evaluated. In the instance of western Pennsylvania, a countywide deployment model could be useful. Departments need to be evaluated on inventories, qualifications, locations, financial status, and incident responses to establish similarities in service so that gaps in service can be identified, along with duplication of services.

Working alongside municipal governments, the volunteer departments can determine the amount of resources needed and expected (equipment, apparatus, and fire stations) to be deployed into each municipality to provide the optimal amount of safety. For some municipalities, it may not result in changes. It may be a significant amount of change for others. However, without evaluating the state of the volunteer fire service, improvements will occur at a slow pace. Volunteer fire departments need to become more readily involved in and adaptable to change and need to consult those who need to be consulted. Consolidation affects much more than the companies involved. It is not a decision to be taken lightly; it needs to be thoroughly researched and understood.

Consolidations are occurring across the country in different realms of public safety. Some areas are seeing EMS and fire companies consolidate for medical response and rescue; others are consolidating paid, volunteer, or combination departments. Many years of tradition are being affected, but it is a new beginning. Firefighters and elected officials should not consider what is popular or best for power or personal agendas but what will provide the best safety for the residents and the people they will serve in both the short- and the long-term.

Such an evaluation can allow companies to look at the big and the small pictures. Departments will be able to establish where the gaps in service are and what resources are needed. By taking a look at the entire situation, companies can analyze the situation from their specific needs. Failing to initiate a change can put not only their safety but also that of others at risk.

Volunteer fire departments should support an evaluation and deployment model. This can help departments start consolidating with fire departments within and between municipalities. Use current guides from insurance companies for consolidation discussions once it has been established which departments will attempt to consolidate. Before departments reach that level of discussion, more quantitative data should be used to decide what companies should consolidate so that the best service will be ultimately provided. Although creating such a model and using it will not be an easy, quick, or cheap process, it may help departments establish where inefficiencies are and make it easier when they do decide to consolidate.

Government entities need to aid the fire service as well by establishing more concise models for the volunteer fire departments to follow. Local governments need to be involved, but they should work with the volunteer fire companies and not try to push a decision on them. It must be a cooperative effort. Classes on consolidations and deciding whether it is the best choice for a municipality are available. Elected officials need to take advantage of these classes and educational guides. Firefighters need to allow “outsiders” (elected officials, citizens, and so on) to participate in their consolidation discussions so that other perspectives and different ideas can be considered.

Solutions to this problem exist. As it is a sensitive topic, it appears that it will be left to the volunteer fire companies to make changes. By working with other entities, resources can be used more efficiently and to provide better services. If volunteer fire departments were to work together, changes may be more thoroughly researched and come about more quickly. Departments need to show that they are willing to solve this problem. More research needs to occur at the municipal and county levels, and potential consolidations need to be analyzed. The state of the volunteer fire service needs to be reevaluated so that departments can make decisions that will provide the best level of safety. Ultimately, it needs to be understood that all changes made should be in the best interests of public safety.

ENDNOTES

1. Pennsylvania General Assembly, Legislative Budget and Finance Committee. “The Feasibility of Regionalizing Pennsylvania’s Volunteer Fire Companies.” Pennsylvania General Assembly. 2005.

2. Frazier, Gary. “A Solution for Increased Efficiency and Service Consolidation.” Applied Research Project. Kansas: National Fire Academy. 1998.

3. Curry, Michael. “An Analysis of Proposed Four Fire District Mergers in Ada County.” Applied Research Project. Idaho: National Fire Academy. 2009.

4. Honeycutt, Gary R. “Royal Oak Fire Department Regionalization Analysis.” Emmitsburg: National Fire Academy. 2004.

5. New York Department of State. “How to Consolidate Fire Protection in Fire Districts, Fire Protection Districts and Villages.” New York State Department.

6. Pennsylvania Department of Health. “Department of Health History and Overview.” http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/department_of_health_information/10674 2014.

VICTORIA MIKULAN is a volunteer firefighter and an EMT at the Mount Troy Volunteer Fire Company in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. She is a graduate of Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania. This article is based on an honors research thesis on volunteer fire department consolidation issues in Allegheny County. She plans to continue this research in the future and to continue serving as a firefighter.

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