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Volunteer shortage prompts Pa. fire dept. to consider paid staff

Millcreek Township officials said critical staffing issues and an 80-year-old volunteer fire department model they say is vastly outdated need to be addressed

By Ron Leonardi
Erie Times-News

MILLCREEK TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Millcreek Township fire officials said critical volunteer staffing issues and an 80-year-old volunteer fire department model they say is vastly outdated need to be addressed as they and supervisors determine the township’s future service needs.

Fire officials addressed their concerns at Tuesday night’s supervisors meeting at the Millcreek Township Municipal Building.

“When you don’t have enough firefighters to effectively fight a fire, and we’ve been at that point, that’s just not safe,” West Ridge Fire Department Chief Dan Ouellet said. “It takes 15 to 20 firefighters to effectively battle a typical residential fire. We are at times half of that or even less.

“The purpose of addressing the supervisors is we want to be proactive and not reactive,” Ouellet said. “We don’t want this to be driven by a tragedy. We want to be out in front of it and we want the supervisors to be working with us to resolve this issue.”

Volunteers from West Ridge, West Lake, Kearsarge, Lake Shore and Belle Valley serve more than 54,000 Millcreek Township residents.

West Ridge Fire Department has 17 part-time paid staff members, three of which are on duty weekdays for 10-hour shifts.

Declining volunteer staff and applicants are impacting all five township fire departments, Kearsarge Fire Department Chief Matt Parker said.

“This isn’t just a day-shift problem, it’s a 24/7, 365-day type of issue,” he said.

Parker oversees a volunteer staff of about 25.

“We’re having an increase in calls and emergencies, everything from ambulance responses and medical calls to rescues, vehicle accidents and fires,” Parker said. “Many of our staff are students. We have a contingent of L.E.C.O.M. students, but their primary job is to become doctors. They’re unavailable during the day. A majority of our department works first-shift hours and almost all of us are unavailable to leave our paid job.”

Fire officials attribute the decrease in volunteer recruits to the labor-intensive nature of the job, time commitment, increasing job requirements, and balancing time between volunteering with family and a full-time job.

“We’ve all been seeing a downward trend of volunteers and applicants coming in,” Ouellet said.

James Rosenbaum, a West Ridge Fire Department deputy chief and president of the Millcreek Fire Chiefs Association, told supervisors the five township fire departments no longer can attract enough volunteers to protect the community.

Rosenbaum presented one option to supervisors where he asked them to consider shifting from the current volunteer-based model supplemented by part-time staff to a full-time, paid fire department augmented by volunteers, part-time staff and per diem employees.

“That’s just one option we have, and I think for right now, it’s the most workable option,” Rosenbaum said. “It provides us with a very high-quality workforce, it leaves a place for the volunteers who have been operating in this 80-year-old model to still fit into, and the career staff obviously will be the ones who are responding most often. We may discover other options down the road.

Supervisor John Groh said he believes the township is inching closer to adopting a full-time, paid staff.

“The more we have to deal with these matters, the closer we’re getting to it,” Groh said. “I’d rather be going into it with our own rate of speed of progress in such a way that the township and the firefighters call the shots. We don’t want to find ourselves in a crisis where, all of a sudden, now we have to hire a bunch of people.”

Copyright 2018 Erie Times-News