Are Lancaster County's volunteer fire companies raising enough funds to protect their communities?
By Lindsey Blest, Staff Writer, LancasterOnline/LNP Media Group
November 7, 2017

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Lancaster County's more than 538,000 residents rely on just over 2,000 volunteers to fight fires across the county.

Split among 67 fire companies, their combined service area is almost 944 square miles of urban, suburban and rural landscape.

Last year, they responded to nearly 24,500 fire calls, according to the county's 911 records.

When the volunteers aren't fighting fires, they're likely going to school, working full-time jobs and raising families, among other things.

Yet, they also manage to find time to do the one vital thing that goes hand-in-hand with being a volunteer firefighter — fundraising.

While the volunteers provide their services for free, the equipment, training and administrative costs each fire company is responsible for can collectively soar well over $1 million.

Volunteer firefighters must complete a minimum of 160 hours of training, according to Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner Timothy Solobay. And, he said, specialty certifications require more hours on top of that.

Add in the demands of fundraising, and being a volunteer has all but lost its appeal, Solobay said.

Which raises the question anonymously posed as part of LancasterOnline's reader-driven journalism project, We The People:

Are volunteer fire companies raising enough funds to protect their communities?

‘We're still behind the eight ball’
Interviews with fire chiefs and industry veterans underscored the complexity of the answer.

While some fire officials say their communities and municipal governments give them the support they need, most of the chiefs LancasterOnline interviewed said departments need to adapt funding to a changing society.

A firefighter for 40 years, Solobay said fire companies are getting tired of fundraising, and unless they receive more municipal funding, they won’t be able to get the money they need.

“That's the message I’m trying to portray to municipal officials,” Solobay told LancasterOnline. “We're still behind the eight ball. It's scary for me.”

The number of volunteers has dropped statewide. There were 300,000 volunteers 40 years ago, he said, but today that number is down to 50,000.

“You don’t have the turnout anymore like you used to have,” said Ed Knight, board member of Lancaster County Firemen’s Association.

Knight started his career in firefighting as a volunteer with Willow Street Fire Company in 1964. He then worked for the Lancaster City Bureau of Fire for 25 years, retiring in 1993.

“All the good fire trucks in the world are no good if they don't have the proper manning and staffing on the rigs,” Knight said.

“Talk about what keeps you up at night,” Solobay said. “For me, it's the fact that with the numbers we have ... that a call will go out for the fire department, and nobody answers that call.”

Safety comes at a cost
Expenses such as new apparatus or insurance are daunting when added to the regular cost of keeping the lights on in a fire station.

A ladder truck can cost $1 million and a rescue truck about half of that, said Solobay. A tanker can range from $300,000 to $400,000. Gear isn’t cheap either. Air packs cost about $7,500 apiece and should be replaced every 15 years, he said.


Ladder truck: about $1 million

Rescue truck: about $500,000

Tanker: $300,000 to $400,000

Air packs: about $7,500 apiece

Source: Timothy Solobay

Then there’s insurance. Under Pennsylvania’s worker’s compensation law, municipalities are responsible to cover volunteer firefighters from stations within their jurisdictions.

Thirty volunteer departments in Lancaster County use the State Workers' Insurance Fund, or SWIF.

SWIF’s annual premiums for 2017 start at just under $6,000 for a municipality with a population of up to 300. The premium increases based on population, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. SWIF lists a premium of nearly $90,000 for a population between 45,001 and 50,000.

Blue Rock Fire Rescue, which covers Millersville and Manor Township, will pay $60,000 of the company’s $964,000 budget for SWIF coverage in 2018, according to the company's commissioner, Duane Hagelgans.

The fire service began using SWIF after the Firefighter Cancer Presumption Law took effect in 2011. The law states that if a firefighter has cancer, it is presumed to be work-related and covered by a fire company's insurance. Because of this expense, insurance companies raised premiums or stopped covering fire companies, forcing many to use SWIF, Hagelgans said.

Blue Rock Fire Rescue paid a local insurance group $12,000 for insurance in 2012 before it had to make the switch when the group stopped being able to offer a policy, he said.

“It is all but a death blow to the volunteer fire service,” Hagelgans said of the Firefighter Cancer Presumption Law.

Where does the funding come from?
Lancaster County fire companies rely on a mix of funding.

Traditional funding includes donations from residents and businesses. Other sources include grants or state funds, such as volunteer firefighter relief association funds distributed by the state auditor general.

Many departments get money from the municipalities they cover, which include funding in their budget.

Other places use a fire tax, or a restricted account in a municipal budget solely for emergency fire services, such as Manheim Township, Manor Township, Mount Joy Township and East Petersburg.

In 2010 East Petersburg was the first to introduce a fire tax, and Chief James Rohrer Jr. said he’s surprised more municipalities haven’t followed suit.

“No fire department in Lancaster County should have to be doing fundraising activities anymore to be an operational fire department,” Rohrer said.

It makes sense for a municipality to impose a fire tax to guarantee funds for their fire services, he said.

“With the training levels today and people's busy lives, it's time that the municipalities take the stance and step up,” Rohrer said.

The borough’s fire tax brought in $144,000 toward East Petersburg Fire Company’s 2017 budget of $274,000, Rohrer said. The department also covers one-third of East Hempfield Township, which contributes to utility costs, he said.

This year Manheim Township Fire Rescue became the first department outside of the Lancaster City Bureau of Fire to employ career firefighters. It has seven full-time firefighters and about 50 volunteers. The township also has a fire tax. The department’s budget in 2017 is over $2.4 million.

Moving to being tax-funded has relieved the burden of fundraising and given firefighters more time for training and work in the station, according to Chief Rick Kane.

“I think it will probably come to a point that the volunteer fire service as a whole is decreasing. The volunteers just run out of hours in a day to do things,” Kane said.

Tax skepticism
Not all departments are eager to support a tax and municipal funding model.

“The tax wouldn’t work, not right now, anyway,” said Chief Rodney Gossert of White Horse Fire Company.

The department, which covers 60 percent of Salisbury Township, has about 40 active members and an annual budget of $80,000.

Its annual chicken barbecue brings in $8,000 to $10,000, and it expects the next 50 percent to 60 percent of the budget to be funded by community donations, largely in the form of a mailed fund request. Salisbury manager Kirsten Peachey said the township contributes $20,000.

“They’re providing public service to the residents in our towns,” Peachey said. “If we had to have a paid department, it would be substantially more expensive.”

Salisbury also covers the state workers insurance for the department and Gap Fire Company, which serves the rest of the township.

“I think the way we have it now is pretty good. In 10 years, it might not,” Gossert said.

In an article published in the September edition of Pennsylvania Township News, Solobay estimated that going to paid firefighters would result in an average $4 million tax bill for the approximately 2,500 state municipalities currently served by volunteer fire companies.

“Volunteer fire service in Pennsylvania saves municipalities and taxpayers almost $10 billion a year in what would otherwise be a very large local tax increase,” he told the publication.

Garden Spot Fire Rescue in New Holland has held a similar funding model to White Horse but needs to adapt, said Chief Darryl Keiser.

“The days of chicken barbecues are going away,” Keiser said.

Here’s how their $600,000 budget breaks down: a quarter comes from dinners and activities, about 30 percent from the municipalities the department serves (New Holland, 75 percent of Earl Township and over half of East Earl Township) and the rest from letters sent to residents annually.

“A lot of people don’t realize we’re volunteer, and we have to raise a lot of our funds,” Keiser said.

When people do support, it gives them “ownership into what we’re doing,” he said.

Legislative action

Senate Resolution 6 calls for a commission of legislators, first responders and representatives from municipalities to provide recommendations to improve emergency services in the Commonwealth.

A previous commission created under Senate Resolution 60 in 2003 came up with 23 recommendations, but challenges such as loss of volunteer first responders, high costs of apparatus and training needs prompted state Sens. Randy Vulakovich and Jay Costa to introduce SR 6.

The commission created under SR 6 is scheduled to make its recommendations by June 30, 2018.

Following are five of the 23 recommendations published by the SR 60 commission in 2004:

Give a tax credit to volunteer firefighters and EMS staff.
Establish legislation to authorize fire and EMS regional boards or districts to provide structure and consistent revenue.
Start tuition credits for volunteer firefighters and EMS studying at state schools and community colleges.
Give tax credits to businesses that allow employees to respond to calls or do training during working hours.
Let fire and EMS agencies bill for incidents to generate revenue.

What's next?
For the community-supported model to work, people will need to continue to support out of their own pockets and with their time, said Gossert, the White Horse chief.

“Everybody (should) support their fire company, voluntarily and monetarily,” he said. “If you don’t, you’ll never be able to afford to live in this county, taxes will be so high.”

Funding relief could come in the form of combining resources, like several Lancaster County departments have done.

Two companies merged to form Fire Department Mount Joy in 2001.

The department has had success in increased municipal funding, a change that “didn’t happen overnight,” according to Chief Philip Colvin. The department serves Mount Joy Borough and Rapho, East Donegal and Mount Joy townships.

“In 1981, we were doing carnivals and dinners and soup sales. Over the years, the municipalities we serve have really taken on the responsibility of covering the cost for fire protection,” Colvin said.

The annual operating budget is $250,000. Of that, $160,000 comes from the four municipalities it serves. The most, $68,000, comes from Mount Joy Borough. The department covers the entire borough and parts of the three municipalities.

From his experience, when public officials raise taxes for public safety, it’s not an issue, Colvin said.

Keiser, chief of Garden Spot Fire, said municipal aid is important, but he thinks there are better options than a fire tax.

“I believe that fire tax takes us one step closer to municipality-operated fire departments, which will discourage volunteerism, and, in the long run, impose lots of taxing,” he said.

Knight, with the county firemen’s association, thinks the best solution is standardization county-wide.

“We've gotta have everybody doing the same thing instead of 60-some fire companies doing their own thing. We've got to get them all together and combine their resources,” he said.

Fire companies will always do fundraising because it’s a way to connect with the community, said Hagelgans, of Blue Rock Fire Rescue.

“But the fundraising has to go down,” he said. “Those days are in the rearview mirror.”

Hyperlinks: LancasterOnline/LNP Media Group story