Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Delaware County Times
Date: June 13, 2005
Byline: Timothy Logue

Fire volunteers feeling the heat

They are two of the most-feared words to members of Pennsylvania's volunteer fire companies. Merger and consolidation. "It shouldn't be that way, but it is," said Marcus Hook Fire Department Chief Joseph Manerchia. "When you start having conversations about closing up a company, you see people come to tears." A report released Tuesday by the state Legislative Budget and Finance Committee on the problems and challenges facing volunteer fire companies offers several possible solutions for improving the delivery of service. But it is one suggestion in particular — that some companies merge or close their doors for good — that makes many firefighters uneasy.

"It's a very, very emotional issue," said state Rep. Ron Raymond, R-162, of Ridley Township. "People don't like to give up their turf, and many of these fire departments have been gathering places for generations."

Noting Pennsylvania has more volunteer departments than any other state, the report claims that, in some cases, "multiple companies in close proximity are resulting in an unnecessary and inefficient overlap and duplication of fire-fighting resources."

Raymond, who serves as secretary of the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, said mergers and consolidations are likely to be inevitable.

"Whenever you talk about regionalization, people go crazy. But from a financial standpoint, I don't know how you can avoid it," he said. "Memberships have been declining for years and the resources just aren't there."

With more than 70 fire departments within its borders, many feel Delaware County is one of the areas where regionalization makes sense.

"We consolidated two years ago and I think it's the way to go," Manerchia said. "A merger is where one company dissolves and is absorbed by another company, which keeps its name. In our case, the Marcus Hook Fire Co. and the Viscose Fire Co. consolidated to form the Marcus Hook Fire Department."

These days, Manerchia gives PowerPoint presentations to companies that are exploring consolidation.

"It's not easy, but people have to realize that the name of the company and the color of the truck don't matter," he said. "What matters is what's best for the people of the community."

Tinicum Township Borough Manager Norbert Poloncarz said the Lester and Essington fire companies came to that conclusion when they decided to join forces.

"Years ago, the fire department was the place to be," Poloncarz said. "The social events were focused around it, the parades, the rides with Santa on the trucks at Christmas time. These traditions go back a long way."

The Tinicum companies are working with moderators to hash out how the new department will operate. When the consolidation is complete, they will move into a new $6.8 million facility along the Delaware River on the Lazaretto property.

"Remember, these are private entities with their own bylaws and their own officers," Poloncarz said. "These negotiations can get touchy, which is why we stay out of it."

"I can tell you one thing, our volunteer fire departments are the biggest asset we have in Tinicum. There is no greater burden you can put on your township than a paid fire department."

According to the report, Pennsylvania's 2,354 volunteer companies have seen a 76 percent dip in membership since 1976. Reasons cited for the decline include stringent training requirements for volunteer firefighters, the ever-increasing number of hours that must be dedicated to fundraising activities, and the longer distances people must travel to get to their jobs.

"Recruitment is a lot more difficult," said Steve Oreskovich, a first assistant chief with the East Lansdowne Fire Department. "It's a combination of things: The demand of two-person working families, the sports and other activities that kids are involved with at school, and the fact that so many people have to commute a long way to and from work."

Oreskovich, who recently joined the police force in Upper Darby, said 85 percent of the members of the East Lansdowne Fire Department have never lived in the borough.

"Our membership has held steady for the last 10 years, but it is definitely down if you go back farther," he said. "Back in the day, everyone used to live in the community, and the people who served were following in the tradition of their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers."

With so many service organizations competing for the same volunteers, firefighting can be a difficult sell.

"You can't just put on your gear, jump on a truck and go," said Manerchia, a 30-year firefighter. "Basic fire training is an 88-hour program. That's the first step ..This is a job that constantly pulls on your time."