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With money tight, fire departments closing or looking to merge

| Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011

A lack of volunteers forced Edgeworth to decertify its 106-year-old volunteer fire department.

"We didn't have a problem with service, just a shortage of volunteers," Councilwoman Carrie Duffield said. "With the economy the way it is, many people are working two jobs and don't have the time to devote to volunteering."

More Pennsylvania towns are discussing merging or closing volunteer fire departments as the number of firefighters declines and money gets tighter.

Edgeworth this month contracted with Sewickley's volunteer Cochran Hose Company for service, said Duffield, who chairs the fire committee.

She expects better service and better rates for homeowners' insurance because Cochran, with about 30 firefighters, has more manpower and superior equipment.

"They're only down the street. It's a situation that might not work in more rural areas, but it looks like it's going to work out great for us," she said.

Officials in rural areas, such Apollo in Armstrong County and West Newton in Westmoreland County, report they are considering mergers.

Mergers are "definitely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a thing of the future" because rural companies find it difficult to stay afloat financially, said Sutersville Chief Mark Ghion.

Each week, the Governor's Center for Local Government Services receives three or four calls for guidance about potential mergers of emergency response units, said Rob Brady, a local government specialist with the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

Brady estimated 150 to 200 mergers occurred in the past 10 years involving fire, rescue, emergency management and EMS programs.

Fire departments drive most of the dialogue, State Fire Commissioner Ed Mann said.

"At the end of the day, it's a local decision, and I know in the last three years more have made that decision," he said. "Sometimes people just take a step back and say, 'Hey, do we need five fire departments within 2{1/2} square miles in a municipality?' "

Fire departments in Harmar and Springdale will merge early next year.

"It's tough for a lot of companies to stand alone," Harmar Supervisor Mike Hillery said. "We've only got one or two people at times responding to calls."

Volunteers staff about 96 percent of Pennsylvania's 2,400 departments. In 2005, about 72,000 volunteers served their communities, a 76 percent decline from 300,000 in 1976, a state budget report said.

Mann estimates the number of volunteers has fallen to between 50,000 and 60,000.

A merger can change homeowner insurance rates in either direction, said Kevin Heher, executive vice president for Liberty Insurance in Pittsburgh. Each neighborhood is assigned a "protection class" that depends on the availability and proximity of fire services, he said.

Tarentum's public safety committee informally discussed merging three departments in the borough of 1.1 square miles.

Borough Manager Bill Rossey, a member of Highland Hose Company, said financial issues will force officials to examine the efficiency of three departments. It spent about $170,000 this year for debt on truck loans, insurance, worker compensation, utilities and gas stipends.

"They have their own charters. They have their own histories. They have their own assets. They have their own vehicles," Rossey said. "They all have their own little things they're proud of, so for them to give that up, it's hard."

Member departments in Mt. Pleasant, Midway and McDonald in the Fort Cherry Fire District in Washington County join forces for training, fundraising and establishing a central incident-command system, said Doug Cooper Jr., chief of the McDonald Volunteer Fire Department. But each department operates independently.

"Consolidation is meant to save the taxpayers money and also is out there to eliminate duplication of services and it's to bolster low manpower numbers, which everyone has at this point," Cooper said.

The departments work well together on calls, but the challenge will be addressing finances and assets, Cooper said. Like most departments, 80 percent to 90 percent of McDonald's money comes from fundraising. That wears on members, Cooper said.

"We're spending more time fundraising when we should be training," said Chief Doug Baird of the Midway department.

Five years ago, officials of Fallowfield Township Volunteer Fire Co., Charleroi Fire Department and the Lock 4 Volunteer Fire Co. in North Charleroi organized the Charleroi Area Fire District.

"We have nothing formal on paper but kind of just formed our own district between three departments and hope in the future that we can move farther forward with it," said Fallowfield Chief Anthony Fleming.

Charleroi Chief Robert Whiten Jr. favors full consolidation, emulating the Greater Charleroi Regional Police Department that will provide police coverage for Charleroi, North Charleroi, Twilight and Speers, starting next spring.

"People have said, 'Well, if the police departments can do it, why can't the fire departments do it?' " Whiten said.

Staff writers Tory Parrish, Adam Brandolph and Michael Aubele contributed to this report.

Additional Information:

In the region

In Southwestern Pennsylvania, volunteer fire departments have merged or are considering a merger in:

• Sutersville and West Newton, Westmoreland County

• Tarentum, Allegheny County

• Millvale and Reserve Township, Allegheny County

• Springdale and Harmar townships, Allegheny County

• Sewickley and Edgeworth, Allegheny County

• Apollo, Armstrong County

• Fort Cherry Fire District, Washington County, involving departments in Mt. Pleasant, Midway and McDonald

• Charleroi Area Fire District, comprising departments in Charleroi, North Charleroi and Fallowfield

Additional Information:

Many mergers

The Governor's Center for Local Government Services estimates there have been from 150 to 200 mergers in the past 10 years for fire, rescue, emergency management and EMS programs.

For the 2009-10 fiscal year, the center received 59 formal requests for technical assistance for possible mergers.

That represents a 20 percent increase from 49 requests a year earlier.

The center doesn't maintain statistics on the number of mergers that went through.

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