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Whitehall VFC in crisis mode over donations

| Wednesday, April 30, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Many businesses fail to donate to the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company.

A large refugee population living in the borough may not even understand what firefighters do.

Many younger people in the area likely have stopped writing checks in favor of electronic payments.

A decline in the number of residents donating to the fire department each year has prompted borough and fire company leaders to look for ways to bolster donations and reach out differently to the community, they said.

“They want to reach out to everyone they're not connecting with,” Mayor James Nowalk said. “It's an effort to educate the public to realize what a valuable asset the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company is.”

Skip Brown, secretary of the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company, has been involved with the department's annual fund-drive mailing for 24 years. He said the money brought in barely has increased over the years, while the number of people giving has dropped. He approached council members at their April 16 meeting.

Twenty-four years ago, the annual mailing to the borough's about 6,800 residences brought in about $94,000. In 2013, the request for donations brought in $101,000. The department receives about 2,100 responses with donations to the mailings.

Whitehall Borough purchased the two stations — one on Route 51 and the other on Weyman Road — for the fire company, Nowalk said. The borough, working with the fire company, purchases and replaces firetrucks.

The fire company operates on a $130,000 annual budget, yet revenues are between $100,000 and $110,000, Brown said. The fire company is responsible for station and truck upkeep and gas purchases, Nowalk said.

The most expensive item in the budget is $28,000 for liability insurance, along with $10,000 a year for testing ladders and hoses, Brown said.

Volunteer firefighters want to educate the public about what they do so that people will realize the independent fire company is not fully supported by tax dollars, Nowalk said.

Working with Whitehall Library, they have planned an interactive gathering between the refugees living in the Whitehall Place, formerly Prospect Park, housing complex, who instead will take the LEARN bus — which normally transports them to the library — to the newly constructed Route 51 fire station, Brown said.

There, the refugees, mostly from Bhutan and Burma, will learn about fire prevention, the operation of the fire company and even have a chance to try on the fire gear, Brown said.

Traditionally, Whitehall Place residents typically haven't made donations, as people living there in the past were transient, Brown said.

Firefighters also want to reach out to local businesses and launch a new website — with easier online payments, Nowalk said.

The fire company plans to use a new system, with the help of Medical Rescue Team South Authority to track where donations come from, Brown said.

The 44-active-member station's annual fund-drive letter will go out at the end of May, Brown said. But getting every part of the borough involved is key.

“Where we're getting a lack of support from is our businesses,” Brown said. “We've gone to large businesses, I'm not going to name them, but it's places where you shop, places where you eat, they're large corporations, and they don't give us one dime, and we get called there all the time.”

Some council members on April 16 said this brings up a fairness issue.

“We don't keep a running total,” Brown said, and firefighters respond to calls regardless of whether someone donates. “We're here to protect lives and property,” he said.

Whitehall Councilman Bill Veith said leaders want to stick with the borough's tradition: firefighters are there to fight fires, not to sell raffle tickets or spend time fundraising.

Yet, with the percentage of Whitehall households donating dropping from 36 percent in 2009 to 31 percent in 2013, borough leaders said, something has to be done.

“I think that the only way that you're going to save this fire company or its financials is with a dedicated income, like a tax,” council President Harold Berkoben said.

Before that would happen, all other options would need to be exhausted, Veith said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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