A Deeper Understanding of WTAE’s Monaca Fire Report

Paul and ChrisYesterday, Tuesday, April 28th, Monaca #4 Fire Department was afforded the opportunity to sit down with WTAE reporter Paul Van Osdol and discuss the frustrations that our fire department has experienced over the years and to provide our side of the story.  The result of this report was aired today, Wednesday, April 29th and can be viewed here.  While the report may have only been approximately three minutes, I would like to point out that he spent nearly an hour and a half with us to have a full understanding of our department, the issues facing it, and the solutions that are needed.  We are very cognizant of the fact that reports such as this are limited in time and can only dive so deep into the issues.  We would be remiss if we didn’t take the opportunity to examine some of the points that Paul brought up in further detail.

Recruitment

When we spoke to Paul we expressed our concerns on the available tools at our disposal to recruit members to the department.  At this time we are essentially only able to offer the life insurance policy mentioned on the broadcast, a $4 per hour pay while on response to fires, and the friendships developed while in the fire department.  We discussed with him the other tools that may be available with funding from the local municipalities, county governments, and ultimately the state.  I would invite our readers to please view the FEMA study on Recruitment and Retention and a PEMA study on Recruitment and Retention and the costs associated with it.  These studies were given to Mr. Van Osdol so that he may reference them in upcoming pieces.

Age of Apparatus and Funding

Mr. Van Osdol brought to light that the engine that we using at Monaca #4 is approaching 25 years of age.  This is something that we are very aware of and have started to voice our concerns to council approximately two years in regards to this vehicle, along with other vehicles in town.  We went into great depth regarding the current financial status of the possibility of purchasing a new truck and we would like to elaborate more on this area.  Mr. Van Osdol made notice of the $2,500 available in the truck fund.  It was detailed to him that this fund is a fund maintained by the borough and to be utilized in the assistance of purchasing new apparatus.  We would like to point out that these are the funds that the borough maintains and is separate from that the each of our fire departments have available as a result of fundraisers and donations.  Many of our residents may ask though, “Why is the truck fund so low when a fire truck is nearly $500,000?”

In the 90’s when fire trucks were purchased in town, a one mil tax for each firetruck (a total of 3 mils) was put into place to fund the payment of three fire trucks in town, one for each station.  Upon completion of payment of these trucks, the increase in millage was then rolled into the general fund for the borough.  While at this point in time we may have had apparatus that was only between ten and twenty years of age, there was no forward thinking plan of how new trucks would be purchased when those began to need to be replaced.  The problem doesn’t just end at a firetruck though, all equipment in the fire service needs to be retired at some point, whether it is turnout gear ($3,000 per firefighter), SCBA’s ($6,000 per unit), or hose (as much as $1000 for a 100′ section) they will all meet an end of life as defined by NFPA standards.  We must be prepared for these purchases.  At this time we purchase items one or two at a time as funds become available either through a new fiscal year (the availability of the $5,000 per year equipment stipend renewing), a fundraiser, or donations coming in from our resident.  Ultimately though, we end up in a situation like that we are in now; approaching a crisis situation without a solid plan in place to handle it.

While the borough has been gracious in providing us funds to sustain our operations, there hasn’t been the opportunity to began to build a capital reserve fund for large purchases as this.  A great example that came to light in the recent weeks involving the borough was that of a collapsed sewer line in town.  As a result of the water department having a reserve fund, built up over a number of years, the borough was able to quickly respond to and repair a collapsed sewer line coming off of Route 51 totaling an amount exceeding $300,000.  That reserve fund simply does not exist though for our fire departments.   Mr. Van Osdol, while interviewing me, asked if I would support a fire tax, which I certainly agreed.

To provide background information, a fire tax is permitted to be enacted by municipalities up to two mils.  This tax, which would cost each borough household approximately $20-$25, would allow approximately $40,000 – $45,000 to be collected a year for the benefit of the fire departments.  This tax, unlike those that were previously advertised for the purchase of fire apparatus, could never be rolled into the general fund and can only be used for such items as the purchase of fire trucks, purchase of equipment, training costs, and construction of a fire station.  A fire tax allows us to build the reserve fund to be prepared for the future so that we are never left in a situation like we are today.  A fire tax alone though does not solve all the issues which I would like to cover next:

Back of HallWhat Wasn’t Included in the Report?

Merger
In spending an hour and a half with Mr. Van Osdol many items were bound to be left out.  One specific item that we would have liked to be included in the broadcast was that of the merger that is presently in process between Monaca #4 and Monaca #5.  Both of our departments have looked down the road and understand the financial constraints that we face.  As a result of this, we made the progressive decision to begin to examine, discuss, and plan a merger between our two stations.  In doing so we would be able to reduce the costs of maintaining two building, potentially reduce the fleet of apparatus in town, and eliminate the purchasing of redundant equipment between our two stations. We have been working with Department of Commerce and Economic Development officials, such as Rob Brady, to facilitate this merger as he has done for Rochester Twp and Rochester Borough.  While we know asking for any type of increase in taxes is a hard thing to do, we want our residents to know that we are planning to make cuts in order to make sure that any and all tax money spent is being done so optimally.

Training
In discussions with Mr. Van Osdol he inquired about the present training that takes place at our station.  We informed him that at this time four of our firefighters are trained to Firefighter I.  Firefighter I is an over 200 hour training program that certifies firefighters in Pennsylvania.  Each and every year all of our departments are working towards having more and more of our volunteers trained to this standard.  Training is of such importance to us that each year we purchase, in conjunction with Center Twp fire department, a 200 hour training package through Bucks County Community College to have instructors come on-site and teach.  In addition to this, we are so dedicated to training that we took what many of you know as the old “Skeeter Hill Ice Cream” building on our property, now a shed, and turned it into a workout room so that our firefighters may stay physically fit.

Pennsylvania is a state in which there is not a formalized training standard for certification, such as that for Police Officers and EMS providers.  Each fire department may make their own standard for the training of their firefighters.  While talking to Paul we made it very clear that we firmly believed in a formalized training standard across the state and call upon Fire Commissioner Solobay to begin to investigate and implement one as so many formal reports by the Governor’s office has suggested in the past.

Social Media
For many years we as volunteer fire departments didn’t do great job informing the public exactly what we were doing.  They may have seen us heading to a fire call or training outside, but they never knew what we were truly doing.  For many years social media has been pushed aside by our administration and line officers for fear of, “what if you post something you shouldn’t.”  Trust me when I say our fire department is no different.  I can distinctly remember five years ago pushing for a website and receiving much resistance.  After some time it was then pushing for a Facebook page, and then Twitter, and then a camera for documenting fire scenes and trainings.  The list goes on and on.  As long as you have the proper individuals manage these great forms of communication, the opportunities of limitless.  I can personally attest to the benefits of social media and the transparency that it has provided to our residents.  In addition to that, it provides an opportunity to display truly how much your department is giving back to your residents.

Where Do We Go From Here?
The conversation certainly does not end here.  News media, such as WTAE, will continue to air segments that feature the volunteer fire service.  We hope to see that the subsequent pieces that they air are as informative as today’s piece.  As a result of this increased coverage, www.MonacaFire.com will now feature a weekly blog article digging into the issues that we are facing and the solutions that we have tried, propose to be tried, or would like our elected officials to enact. If you are interested in sharing your stories or working in conjunction with us on this project please feel free to reach out to me at Chris.Shotter@MonacaFire.com

We as a fire service though need to continue to network and communicate with each other.  I was astounded with the number of emails and messages on social media that I received from other fire departments throughout Western Pennsylvania.  For far too long we have each stayed in our own little comfort zones, whether our own stations, towns, or counties.  We have now been presented a tremendous opportunity to transition from just having frustrations to beginning a dialogue with elected officials.  Various administrative and line officers have reached out to me in regards to bringing together a group throughout the region and begin to make our voices heard throughout not only our local communities, but the state as well.  We can be ignored one station at a time, but collectively we are a much great force to silence.  If you are interested in partaking in such a group, please feel free to email me at Chris.Shotter@MonacaFire.com and we can continue the dialogue there.

My apologies in not getting this post up sooner but had to spend a few hours on the phone in regards to our yearly letter drive and then was dispatched to a fire alarm activation….just another day in a volunteer firefighter’s life.

Stay safe out there,

Chris Shotter
Monaca #4 Volunteer Fire Department President

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