Pa. officials begin consolidation of 6 city fire departments
A consolidation plan in Sunbury will cover everything from leadership, staffing and apparatus to avoid duplication of services and improve costs, training
By Francis Scarcella
The Daily Item
SUNBURY, Pa. — The Sunbury Fire Department will consolidate all six fire departments in the city, a long overdue move according to officials.
The efforts to consolidate began years ago and fizzled out. In the summer of 2021, the idea was revisited after some chiefs said bringing the six companies together under one roof just made sense.
Sunbury City Council got involved and requested a report from the state Department of Community and Economic Development on whether it is feasible for the city to consolidate.
The results, according to City Councilman John Barnhart, were favorable to combining all the departments. There are still a lot of details that need to be ironed out, he said, but there seems to be wide support for the move.
“This will allow the department to work more efficiently with the volunteers that are available,” Sunbury Mayor Josh Brosious said. “This will also help with getting more grants to cover the cost of operations.”
Council approved a Strategic Management Planning Program audit and five-year plan, by Management Partners of Ohio, in 2021. The initial report was provided by Wayne Chapman, of Management Partners.
He also recommended the city’s fire department submit a developed plan.
Currently, the city gives $10,000 a year to each of the six volunteer fire departments — Friendship Hose Company, Sunbury No. 1, Rescue Hose Company, Americus Hose, East End Hose and Good Will Hose — according to City Administrator Derrick Backer.
The consolidation plan was released to council with the mission statement that the complete volunteer fire department is to “protect the lives and property of the citizens and visitors of the City of Sunbury, Townships of Lower Augusta, Upper Augusta, and Rockefeller, and surrounding communities from fires, natural disasters, and hazardous incidents; to save lives and to prevent fires through prevention and education programs. This will be accomplished by the volunteer department’s dedicated volunteers by being committed to teamwork, continuous improvement, and professionalism.”
Under the current alignment, the fire chief rotates in the city every two years, but under the new plan the chief will remain in place for five years.
There will also be first assistant chief, second assistant, chief captains, lieutenants, a fire police captain, a fire police lieutenant and a fire police sergeant, according to the new structure.
The department responded to 565 calls in 2023 which is about average, according to officials.
State Rep. Mike Stender, who also serves as a volunteer firefighter, said he thinks consolidation is the right move.
“I think the Sunbury Fire Department, consolidating the fire and rescue services, will help control ever-rising costs and better utilize current manpower more efficiently,” Stender said. “As we see a decline in volunteer firefighters, I think the Sunbury Fire Department is doing the responsible thing by seeking out different ways to provide public safety to surrounding communities.”
Stender said the consolidation of fire apparatus, manpower and equipment will help reduce the duplication of equipment, allow for better group purchasing and hopefully provide a more cohesive training plan.
“I applaud the fire department for taking a hard look and trying to develop a long-term strategic plan that will benefit everyone in the community.”
ChallengesThere will be several challenges along the way, including finding one location to keep all the fire apparatus, according to officials.
Fire department officials and elected officials are working together to find a property, or piece of land in Sunbury, to possibly build a new station that would hold the city’s entire inventory of equipment.
Two stations recently purchased new fire trucks, and the debt for those vehicles, which is more than $1 million, would be assumed by the department as a whole in the consolidation.
The Americus Hose Co., on Linden Street, recently purchased a ladder truck for more than $1 million. The East End Fire Department purchased a pumper engine truck for around $700,000.
“Everyone has to start planning now so funding is available when this officially takes place,” Brosious said. “We need to be ahead of things in case we need to begin construction somewhere.”
Barnhart, who has spearheaded the consolidation, agreed and said there are challenges ahead, but it’s the best move for residents and the departments.
“It will be great for our residents and surrounding areas,” he said. “Some of the challenges I can see is getting the youth involved once we get this all set up.”
Barnhart said the other challenge is funding.
“There is grant money out there and we are actively pursuing it,” he said. “We are also looking for locations and it could be awhile but right now things are moving along at a good speed for this.”
Barnhart said he is also working with Luzerne County Community College to offer firefighting classes at one of the city stations and also working with the college to meet with the Shikellamy School District to start a class or club at the high school
Jay Long, current assistant fire chief, from the Americus Hose Co., said consolidation makes sense financially, manpower- and operability-wise, and is just a better way to function in a better state for citizens.
He said the challenges are getting six different entities on the same page and, of course, funding.
“We will have a financial burden to start off, but in the long run this will pay for itself,” he said.
Long also agreed volunteers are down and consolidation could be a good way to attract, more people. Long said there are about 90 volunteers listed, but out of those people on an average fire call, 20 will respond.
“It’s because people work and this is a volunteer department,” he said. “We are always actively recruiting.”
Sunbury Fire Chief, Ronald Rupp Jr ., who belongs to the Rescue Hose Company, said consolidation needs to happen.
“Let’s say it is 5 a.m. in the morning, a call comes in, right now it takes stations longer because one station may have a driver but one may not, with a consolidated department it would be a quicker response with all the apparatus in place.”
Rump said he is in full support.
“The sooner it happens, the better we will be,” he said. “There is so much duplication in equipment, we will save costs.”
Tony Bendele, a captain in the city department out of the Americus Hose Co., said consolidation was long overdue. Bendele is one of the approved drivers of the ladder truck and responds to nearly every call when possible.
“The consolidation of the Sunbury Fire Department will help mitigate several problems currently faced by the department,” he said. “Societal changes, a lack of volunteers, a lack of funding, duplicate apparatus and equipment, and an increased call volume are just some of the issues that need to be addressed.”
Bendele said merging the six fire stations into one central building would help apparatus respond at a faster rate with a full complement of trained firefighters.
“Whereas some stations are currently responding with only two or three personnel on each apparatus, a merger would help the department to respond with six or more personnel on each piece of apparatus,” he said.
“By merging the department, it would also help reduce the total number of duplicate apparatus and firefighting tools. This in turn would help cut down the cost of maintenance as well as purchase prices when new equipment is needed.”
Bendele said one of the main challenges for the consolidation will be funding.
“How will the new department be funded? Where will the new fire station be? Who will pay for the new fire station? Are there grants or city funding that can be obtained? Those are all questions that are currently being looked at by the consolidation committee,” he said. “At the end of the day, the consolidation is needed not only for the betterment of the department but also for the safety of the residents in the City of Sunbury and surrounding areas.”
Jerome Alex, president of the Americus Hose Co., said consolidation is something that is being forced on volunteer companies because of a lack of manpower and funding.
“Consolidation is good if done properly and all the participants are completely sold on the process,” he said. “It will save money by consolidating equipment and (getting) more manpower at emergency scenes.”
Alex agreed a lot still has to be done before the consolidation is official.
“The ownership of different fire apparatus and rescue equipment is still being worked out,” he said. “That part is all still in the preliminary stages.”
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