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Hot issue for America’s Coolest Small Town
BRITTANY SMITH Special to the Record Express
, Staff Writer
The following commentary on emergency services comes to us from the Warwick Township municipal office:
Think Lititz is cool?
In terms of exciting events, good food and unique history, most agree that Lititz has proven itself worthy of such a title. But behind the scenes, it has one hot issue at hand – the rising cost of providing emergency services.
Since 1786, Pennsylvania has prided itself on keeping a well-maintained volunteer fire service. In fact, this tradition is so strong in Pennsylvania that it retains the highest number of volunteer fire companies of any state in the country. It’s easy to see why. Fire companies provide a way to give back to the community through strengthening cooperation between neighbors and upholding community values.
Despite the strong heritage, funding for fire and ambulance services is a concern that has long been plaguing Pennsylvania and the nation. Many communities are left with little option but to levy taxes, merge with other companies, or find other means.
According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, volunteer numbers have declined at a rate of over 18 percent in under 30 years, while the average age of volunteers continues to increase. There are many reasons for this dwindling number of volunteer and capital resources. Increased commitments and high training standards, family obligations and longer work commutes all contribute to the problem. At the same time, emergency calls continue to steadily increase.
When something unpredictable happens, where do you turn? Perhaps a wire starts a fire in the basement. Or your husband has a heart attack. Who will be there for you? We expect our providers to be there in times of need, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to make ends meet. If you have seen the red and white banners around town celebrating our Hometown Heroes, you have witnessed part of a federally-funded campaign aimed at increasing and retaining the dwindling volunteer base. But the challenges facing our emergency services are twofold – increasing volunteer support while also maintaining a funding base for our volunteer system.
In this region, Warwick Emergency Services Alliance (WESA) provides the backbone to emergency services. The alliance, formed by three municipalities, four fire companies and three ambulance companies, has been together for more than a decade. From supporting each other through mutual aid or participating in joint training, the companies maintain a strong partnership. Standardizing their equipment and training together allow the volunteers to operate more efficiently on emergency incidents and in the most cost effective manner. The four fire companies already jointly apply for grants, which increase their chance of receiving federal funding. However, in these lean economic times and decreasing budgets, it is not enough. Companies rely heavily on fundraisers and auxiliaries to bring in necessary funds.
Many residents are surprised to hear that well over 50 percent of a fire company’s budget is self-funded. Local municipal contributions and federal grants provide some funding assistance, but the majority of the costs are raised by the volunteers themselves. These funds go directly to keeping a functioning fire company running. Putting gas in the engines, training costs, keeping lights on at the station and providing protective gear to volunteers are all examples of costs that these emergency service providers need to continue to serve those in need.
Unfortunately, these needed funds are not met with a few chicken barbecues, bingo games, dinners and breakfasts. Between WESA’s four volunteer fire companies, fewer than 40 percent of residences responded to their respective fire company’s annual fund drives. This is a significant drop in support within the last decade or two. In the ’80s and ’90s, companies received upwards of 60 percent. Back in 1995, the Lititz Fire Company saw a 54 percent return rate on their fund drive letters. Today, those numbers have dropped in half. Some companies are now only seeing a 25 percent return. Only three in 10 households financially support their fire companies. However, all of them receive the same amount of care and emergency response.
There are many factors for the large drop-off in numbers. Among rising inflation, increased work schedules and a more transient population, obtaining funding for emergency services has slipped from the forefront. Fire companies spend an inordinate amount of time assisting in awareness trainings and safety assessments for anyone who asks, but are often not returned the favor. Businesses, particularly, pose the biggest risks in fires and other emergencies. They are by far the least supportive contributors toward fund drive campaigns, averaging a 20 percent response rate. A well trained fire and ambulance service is important to the health of your business and employees.
Emergency service providers also continue to battle a dwindling volunteer base. For 88 years the ladies auxiliary of the Rothsville Volunteer Fire Company has played a crucial role in support and fundraising. Many of the members have now grown older and little to no help remains to keep the organization afloat for fundraising activities. Yearly, the ladies auxiliary brought in at least $5,000 for the fire company through various fundraisers. Unfortunately, the fire company can no longer count on those funds and must look to other alternatives.
The burden is now left to the same volunteers who lose nights of sleep to help strangers across town. These volunteers are the ones who brave snowstorms to safely rescue folks from accidents, go to schools to educate children on fire risks, or sacrifice time away from their family to be at their best during trainings and emergencies. With support from the rest of us, we can relieve some of the burden on our volunteers to provide their own funding, allowing them to be there in actual times of need. They attend over 100 hours of training, attend up to 15 events a year, and spend an inordinate amount of time serving above and beyond the call of duty.
Gordon Young, a Rothsville firefighter, remarks, "The fundraising is tiresome and hard on members with families. Hopefully we can reduce or eliminate this in the future."
The consequences of unsustainable contributions have led some communities to rely on paid personnel, which weigh on municipal budgets and ultimately the taxpayer. Kurt Gardner, president of the Brickerville Fire Company notes that, "As costs rise and municipal budgets get tighter, we need everyone to do their part. It is the only way we will survive."
In the case of Elizabeth Township, volunteers save the township up to $1.5 million a year, a hefty price tag for such a small municipality.
If the downward trend continues, funding methods might get creative. Other communities, such as Manheim Township and East Petersburg Borough, have already issued a fire tax to supplement taxes already paid. Still, other areas combat the issue through a fee for services, much like the way ambulance services operate today. In an extreme measure to get funded, the community of South Fulton, Tennessee has instituted a $75 yearly fee for service. Those who don’t pay their fire bill also do not receive coverage. Their motto is "no pay, no spray." In this particular case, neighbors watched as a home burnt to the ground because the owner did not pay their yearly fee.
While it’s hard to believe that a responder would ever refuse to help someone in need, emergency services are not something to take lightly. It is a service, which at some point or another, everyone benefits from. Our local companies do not choose to respond to only one-quarter of their fire calls. They respond to anyone in need, regardless of their situation or how many donations they have made. Ambulances do not just ignore a call for help. Why should the surrounding community be making that same choice of supporting their providers?
What makes this region extraordinary is the commitment to family and the broader community. While other regions have had to merge fire entities or switch to a paid system, Lititz Borough, Warwick and Elizabeth townships have been able to maintain the tradition of a volunteer fire service. Though, keeping these services running at a high level requires a large responsibility on the part of its residents.
"I couldn’t just sit back, knowing that the fire company needed help from the community," explains Jeff Mearig from Brunnerville Fire Company. That passion and attitude has kept him volunteering on the front lines for nearly 36 years. He added, "What makes volunteering special is being part of a larger community and knowing that, although you may not be able to make every call, you are still a piece of something really important."
Before you donate, ask yourself what value you place on your family, your life, and your home. Ensure that your fire and ambulance companies have the training and equipment they need by giving back to them. Just how much does it cost to provide fire service? Protective gear alone adds up fast. A pair of fire-safe boots can cost $250, a pair of gloves is $85, and $5,000 purchases a firefighter’s breathing apparatus. A simple donation goes a long way, when compounded with everyone else’s simple donation. If everyone gave $50, a block of 75 neighbors could raise $3,750, enough to purchase a new portable radio device. What more could we do, if everyone participated in this effort?
Donate to your fire and ambulance departments before it may be too late. Don’t take your emergency service providers for granted. By paying a minor cost up front, fire and ambulance services have the tools they need to protect and provide the quality of service this community deserves for the long run. However, it’s the community that must make a choice to either contribute or to let the system fail on its own. It takes a community of hometown heroes to run a successful emergency services program. Not everyone can be on the front lines. There is a whole range of support that the fire community needs. If you can’t joint their ranks, consider giving instead.
Give because you care about this community. Give because you support the traditions we all uphold. By doing so, you also become a hometown hero. The volunteers can’t do it without community collaboration. Don’t let such an important service lose priority, but do your part in keeping Lititz cool. Be sure to look for your fire company’s fund drive letter in the mail, so you can support those who support you in your time of need.
Brittany Smith is a municipal intern at the Warwick Township office on Clay Road.
More VOLUNTEERS, page A17