TOWNSHIP OF EAST MEAD – A room full of firefighters, EMS, municipal and government workers gathered at the East Mead Volunteer Fire Department on Monday evening to hear a speaker and discuss the challenges they face.
“We wouldn’t be able to fill this room if it weren’t for the trouble,” said Jerry Ozog, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire & Emergency Services Institute, a group dedicated to advocating for fire groups and EMS in Harrisburg.
Ozog came to speak to all parties involved with the fires and EMS in the county.
County Commissioner Eric Henry said Crawford County needs help, and it’s a way to “stimulate dialogue and discussion”.
After filling their bellies with food from Fire and Iron, a group of firefighter bikers who also do catering, the group heard about Ozog. He told the audience what they already knew, the reality of the situation for volunteer firefighters and EMS services.
Ozog wanted to make it clear what the challenges were, so we could talk about them. For too long, issues of money, manpower and communication have simmered below the surface.
“You have to understand that this is a critical issue and you are the ones who are going to fix this issue as city officials and leaders of fire and EMS organizations,” Ozog said. “The state government is not going to come forward and solve the problem. It is the courage, determination and dedication of all of you in your communities.
Ozog has been equipped with stats and information to show all participants the reality of Crawford County Volunteer Firefighters. He pulled out a map of the state and showed where populations are rising and falling, and where populations are aging.
Crawford County has an aging population and a declining population. This means fewer volunteers and older volunteers. Those who rely on volunteer fire departments know that it’s not uncommon to see someone in their 60s or older laying hoses or directing traffic.
Another problem for fire and EMS departments in the county is one that plagues most government agencies, money. Ozog told firefighters that costs are rising and traditional funding is holding steady, which is not sustainable. He described funding sources as a four-legged stool. The different legs are different ways VFDs get funding, from events to taxes and alternative sources like clubhouse rentals.
“If one of those legs gets weak, the stool falls over,” Ozog said.
The last big problem he mentioned was organizational dysfunction. Fire departments are places that, as Ozog says, are insular. It’s usually a core group of people who run the department, and often their fathers were involved before them, as were their grandfathers.
Ozog said most departments know there has to be change, but there is also a fear of change. He explained how the phrase “this is how it’s always been done” is one of the most dangerous thoughts circulating in the departments.
All of these factors and challenges have put the fire and EMS departments in a tough spot. There are hundreds fewer fire and emergency departments in the state as more and more have to shut down.
When one service closes, another must expand its coverage areas. This leads to volunteers burning out and response times increasing as engines and ambulances have to go further and further to respond.
With the reality of the situation on the table, Ozog introduced a character who would be mentioned throughout the night, Mrs. Smith. Smith represents community members who rely on these services.
Ozog explained that whatever decisions these departments make, you cannot forget Ms. Smith and the people who rely on these services.
However, Ozog didn’t just talk about the problems, he also wanted to present solutions and ways Crawford County can keep its fire and EMS departments as they are.
“It’s not all dark and catastrophic,” Ozog said. “It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get things done.”
Regardless of the solution presented, they all had a common theme, communication. Too often, Ozog said, city governments or fire and emergency departments try to solve these problems without talking and trying to do it together.
“How are we going to meet these challenges? Individually or collectively,” Ozog said.
Ozog showed examples of how other departments and communities across the state have worked together to overcome these issues, and said Crawford County can do the same. He stressed that it was not about merging, a sensitive subject for many ministries. “The goal is not to merge, it’s to collaborate on strategic planning,” he said.
Ozog then opened the floor to hear from those dealing with the issues first-hand, firefighters and EMS personnel from across the county.
One of the topics discussed was the state making it harder on departments with the amount of training. At times, the Q&A session turned into a vent, but Ozog knows these issues needed to be opened up and discussed.
Staff, young and old, stood up to talk about the reality of Crawford County and how to reach the younger generation.
A volunteer stood up and said that with low graduation rates in the county, coupled with low income, people could barely afford what they were already paying, and departments needed more funding, but wondered where they could get it from. She said young people now have more than one job and those who find good jobs usually have to leave the county to do so.
One topic that resonated with the whole group was the increase in the number of firefighters having to help with lifting aids.
Commissioner Henry said lift assists have doubled in the past four years and the county is already on the verge of making 1,000 lift assist calls.
Many stood up and said that when they volunteered their time, they were pledging to help the fires and those in need. They said they hadn’t signed up to help the same elderly people get up from a chair, sometimes helping the same person more than 30 times in a month. They all agreed that part of the problem is educating the public and making sure families are aware of these issues.
Attending the meeting were members of the Townville Volunteer Fire Department and EMS. The Herald spoke with Josh Manuel, the department’s fire chief, who said the presentation was “really helpful” and it was nice to hear everyone’s concerns.
Manuel said his department had a younger average than the state, but recruiting new, younger members had been difficult.
“We’re just having trouble getting them into the station,” he said.
Another challenge mentioned by Ozog that Townville faces is income. Although there is a fire tax, they currently do not collect an EMS tax, even though Townville EMS covers a large area. Randolph Township, for example, has a VFD, but they use Townville EMS.
With all of the challenges facing fire and EMS in Crawford County, the county is taking action to address these issues. The county recently created a Crawford County Fire Task Force and is in the process of developing an EMS commission.
Ryan Sekerski, chair of the task force, is also the deputy chief of the Cochranton Volunteer Fire Department. The task force has members from across the county and is here to get ideas on how to address these issues.
“A lot of our VFDs are struggling,” Sekerski said. “We seriously discuss the issues we face, sometimes talking for three hours.”
Sekerski said the public needs to be educated and understand the seriousness of this problem.
“They are counting on us, now we have to count on them,” Sekerski said.
He said if everyone in the community helped out a little, whether it was with the department or just to help with fundraising, it would make things much easier for those departments. He said that currently things are not sustainable. “Either you help or you have to pay,” he said.
Although dinner was a good stop, Ozog said there are too many meetings, meetings and more meetings that never produce change. Although he said each department’s solution to problems will be different and local, they are all in this together and want to help.
“The goal is to recruit members, retain members, generate funds and keep departments open,” Ozog said.
Dvorkin can be contacted by email at [email protected]