“Volunteer numbers for firefighting have dropped significantly since the 1970s when there were around 300,000 volunteers to about 40,000 today in Pennsylvania municipalities, and specifically Sunbury.”
The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pa.
December 21, 2021
(TNS) – The future of the Sunbury Fire Department will be decided in 2022 as city officials and all six fire departments anxiously await a detailed state report on potential consolidation. Efforts began years ago, fizzled out, but then in the summer the idea was revisited after some chiefs said bringing all six companies together under one roof just makes sense.
Sunbury City Council now awaits a report from the state Department of Community and Economic Development on whether or not it is feasible for the city to consolidate. City Administrator Derrick Backer said he believes it’s in the best interest of the departments and residents.
“Consolidating the current fire stations within Sunbury will allow for funding to go farther and helps ensure that whenever there is an emergency involving the fire department, there will be a response,” he said. “Volunteer numbers for firefighting have dropped significantly since the 1970s when there were around 300,000 volunteers to about 40,000 today in Pennsylvania. Municipalities, and specifically Sunbury, must provide fire service to their citizens whether that be through volunteers or through a paid department.”
Backer said Sunbury can’t afford to pay its department at this time. “Unfortunately, with a paid department comes the added tax burden put on its citizens if volunteerism went away completely,” he said. “Normally, for a fire truck to leave a fire station for a working structure fire, you need at least three individuals on a fire engine to respond. An engine cannot put the fire out itself and it needs the personnel to drive the truck, run the pumps and man the hose line during a fire.”
Council approved a Strategic Management Planning Program audit and five-year plan, by Management Partners, of Ohio, for the city earlier this year which included a mention of fire department consolidation.
An initial report provided by Wayne Chapman, of Management Partners, recommended the city’s fire department submit a developed plan. Councilman Chris Reis said he wanted to see what DCED would come up with when given the chance to develop a plan for the city moving forward.
Backer said all six fire stations and the city are currently working with DCED to provide the free study into consolidation. “They are looking at equipment inventories, manpower, station structures and more to create a roadmap for consolidation for all the stations within the city,” he said. “It will take time for this study to be completed and reviewed by all entities involved, but there is a willingness from all fire stations and the city to ensure we can provide the best, and most reliable, fire service to the citizens of the city. This is a partnership and I look forward to moving this forward with all six stations.”
According to the audit the city had completed, the number of volunteers continues to decline and if not addressed it could potentially be a liability to the safety of residents of Sunbury. Currently, the city gives $10,000 a year to each of the six volunteer fire departments — Friendship Hose, Sunbury No. 1, Rescue Hose, Americus Hose, East End Hose and Good Will Hose, according to Backer.
The city just recently began asking to see where the money is spent and what is being done to improve the departments. The Americus Hose Company, which has a ladder truck, is currently in the process of fundraising to purchase a new nearly $2 million ladder truck.
Backer said the city is in support of the purchase and is looking at grants to help with the cost. “Without consolidation, there could be six individuals total that go to three different stations (two each) and because of that, none of the stations have the proper personnel to go to a working structure fire,” Backer said. “With consolidation all six of those individuals would go to one central station and you would have enough personnel to bring two pieces of equipment right away to the structure fire. The time it takes to get to the fire station and respond to the emergency matters.”
In 2021, the fire department ran approximately 400 calls, according to city Fire Chief Brad Wertz. Each fire department has its own board and operates as an independent entity from each other and the city government, but are under the umbrella of the Sunbury Fire Department. The city itself has no jurisdiction over the fire companies other than providing $10,000 in allocations each year.
Wertz and Assistant Fire Chief Jay Long both expressed concern about the department and the much-needed complete report on consolidation. “I am absolutely for consolidating,” Wertz said. “The whole chief staff is for this. You will have more sufficient manpower on apparatus when arriving at a scene. We will have everyone under one roof and the training throughout the department can all be done at one time.”
Wertz said it’s just more cost-effective. “We can get down to the equipment that we need and save on costs,” he said.
Wertz said this would give more manpower to the city. “They would get better training and all trained at the same time and same level,” he said. “We are anxious to view the final report.”
Sunbury Councilman Jim Eister said consolidating the companies is something the city has been discussing for years and it makes sense for other Valley municipalities to follow in this path. “To always have the equipment under one roof is a plus for the volunteers and the community,” he said.
Backer said from a financial perspective, the move makes sense. “You won’t have duplicate equipment where it is not needed, so your overhead of maintenance and purchasing of those pieces of equipment can go down significantly,” he said. “Because of that, you can have newer and more reliable equipment.”
Eister said council is waiting for the report from DCED. “That report will give us a much clearer understanding and what we need to do moving forward,” he said.
Councilman and incoming Mayor Josh Brosious said one fire department would make it easier to get funding as opposed to six battling against each other for the same dollars. “This just makes sense for us,” he said. “We are waiting to see what the final report says and we can go from there. We don’t want to rush the process and make sure everything is done properly to form the best fire department possible to serve our citizens and other surrounding communities.”
In Northumberland, officials are also looking to consolidate the companies that serve the borough. An official legal agreement between the two fire companies has had no recent progress, Northumberland Borough Fire Chief Brian Ginck said.
The Northumberland Borough No. 1s — a company that began in 1796 — and the Hookies, formed about 100 years later, informally merged their tactical operations in 2015 and have been operating out of the same building even as each company still exists as a separate entity. They have also maintained separate social clubs for the last six years.
“Both companies are sitting down with their Emergency Services Board Council, the governing body of the two companies, to discuss ways to fund the companies,” said Ginck. “It’s been so long now that it (the legal agreement) might not be practical anymore. We’re operating under the premise of working together, we just don’t have the paperwork finished.”
The No. 1 engine and the Hookies’ ladder and rescue trucks are all housed at the Hookies at 348 Fifth St. Due to low manpower, all firefighters come to that central location to ready themselves in fire events, said Ginck. “It makes it easier that way,” said Ginck.
Shamokin talks restarted
The Shamokin Fire Bureau consists of six companies: Friendship Fire, Liberty Fire, Rescue Fire, Independence Fire, West End Fire and Shamokin Emergency and Rescue Squad. Liberty and Rescue already have a partnership by operating out of the same building, said Shamokin Fire Chief Stephen Jeffery.
While there have been conversations over the past few years to consolidate, those conversations were stalled when COVID-19 hit and haven’t restarted, said Jeffery. “I think they’re going to hold off until the point they’re going to be made to do something,” said Jeffery of Coal Region fire companies. “I think it will be an alternative for the municipality to recognize there’s an issue.”
Jeffery said Kulpmont, Warrior Run and Minersville within the last decade have all consolidated or combined services. When it comes down to consolidation, one of the issues will be the money to construct or remodel a building, he said. “We all operate on the fire scene as one department. Financially we don’t,” said Jeffery.