Funding limitations, and other serious challenges plaguing volunteer fire companies in Upper Bucks, may be leading toward consideration of alternative ways of operating. The challenges, which are also being similarly reported statewide, may be headed toward consolidation as the leading consideration for change.
The matter was raised in-depth at the Jan. 16 Nockamixon Township public board of supervisors meeting by Bill Shick, fire chief at the Ottsville Volunteer Fire Company. Ottsville is in both Nockamixon and Tinicum Townships, and its fire company also serves parts of Bedminster and Haycock townships.
Shick’s 20-minute presentation included discussion with Nockamixon Township Manager Keith DeLuca, who noted the issues were common, informal topics at meetings of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors (PSATS). DeLuca indicated that barriers to consolidation had more to do with townships having a meeting of the minds than their fire companies, and that he would be starting to raise the issues with neighboring townships, while Shick did so with his own peers.
Shick noted a membership challenge of 50 percent of the volunteers being over 45 years of age, and less than 15 percent 22 and younger, suggesting a shortage down the road. He also noted response to his company’s annual fundraising drive, which had always been less than hoped for, as down from 26 percent to 18 percent. With volunteer time increasingly needed for training, maintenance, and equipment, members no longer had time for fundraising, he said.
Meanwhile, townships are growing and so is call volume, and Shick feels that the “time is gone when fire companies can be 100 percent self-sufficient.” Call volume features too many extra responses to alarm systems, which can be often related to malfunction, and “careless cooking.” Overall, he sees “not enough people or money.”
Shick noted training of 196 hours before a volunteer is “ready to get on a truck.” Experiments to shorten it by adding Sundays, and online instruction, “didn’t work well.” He didn’t see family service tenures of the 55 years from Nockamixon Supervisor Carl Bahnck, and 40 years from another member of his family, Roger Bahnck Jr., as likely in the future. “It’s great if we can keep someone for three years,” he said.
He concluded by suggesting dialogue as a first step toward “how to get a consolidation that works,” while DeLuca noted the possibility of “just starting with a consortium for buying power.”