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View from the Track

What we all have in common

Kip Hamilton

(June 2011) So, what do the leaders of the six municipalities surrounding Fairfield and the Fairfield Fire & EMS all have in common?

They all want to provide the best possible emergency services to the citizens they serve.

To this end, the Management Team of the Fairfield fire department invited representatives from the local governments of the areas they serve as well as representatives from their emergency service partners from the Cashtown and Fountaindale Fire Departments to the inaugural meeting of a yet to be named Emergency Services Regional Planning Group on May 23rd at the Fairfield firehall.

As has been mentioned in this column before, the local municipalities have the legal responsibility to provide fire and rescue protection to their residents. In the case of the Fairfield area, the Fairfield Community Fire Company, now known as Fairfield Fire & EMS, has actually been providing this coverage for over 90 years…without compensation, as a free service to their neighbors.

There are ongoing discussions all over the country on the future of volunteer fire departments as membership in Pennsylvania volunteer departments has been steadily declining since 1985. In many areas, this decline in membership is resulting in decreases in the quality of service and/or department closures. Unfortunately, Adams County is not immune from this societal phenomenon brought on by among other things, the modern family’s overbooked schedule. All over Adams county volunteer fire companies are having staffing issues, some more than others.

Fortunately for the Fairfield residents, the members of the fire and ambulance companies that serve them are working (volunteering) hard to maintain the high levels of service the citizens are accustomed to. But, in an attempt to be proactive, this group was brought together for the first time to start planning for future eventualities. Normally, such strategic planning is conducted at the county level, but since the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has no counties, the individual boroughs and townships are more or less on their own. This, however, results in duplication of effort and comes with an inherent inefficiency. In the future, there will be no room for such things and municipalities will have to work together to get the best result for their residents.

Following a brief introduction, the evening’s program began with a quick outline of the capabilities of the Fairfield Fire & EMS department, followed by some of the specific challenges they face.

Back in 2004, a Resolution was passed in the PA General Assembly known as Resolution 60 which contained over 20 provisions relating to the delivery of Fire & Rescue services in the state. Fairfield Board President A.J. Aldrich has done much research and really has become the local expert on the subject and he gave an hour-long presentation that covered the responsibilities of the local governments and the emergency responders and how the two groups could work together as a team, prompting a series of good questions from the civic leaders.

Finally, the group was presented the "Down and Dirty" bottom line in the form of a series of slides which laid out what it would cost the local governments if for some reason they were forced to start from scratch in providing their own fire & rescue services. The costs for just the payroll for providing 24/7 paid firefighting coverage came to a staggering $1.2 million. This did not include the costs associated with providing EMS coverage or purchasing the apparatus, which would more than double that amount. It was a sobering moment. The reality is that the residents simply could not afford to provide their own emergency services. The annual budget of just the Fairfield department is between $650,000 and $700,000 per year. There are in the neighborhood of 1000 residents. Do you see a problem here?

The comment was made that a number of current residents are transplants from counties to our south where the local governments provide countywide emergency services and that they are used to their tax dollars going to provide these services. Now living in Adams County, they do not realize that we do not have a county-sponsored Department of Fire & Rescue Services and that the local fire departments are not tax supported at all. Its just not something you think about…you just expect the service to exist. When you call 911, you just want someone to come quickly to help you; you are not concerned at the time which who funds them and how they do what they do, right?

The hope of the participants is that these meetings would develop into a regional group which would be responsible for conducting strategic, long-range planning for continuing the area’s emergency service coverage into the future. When it becomes evident that the all-volunteer system has reached its limits as far as providing quality emergency services, it will be a terrific benefit to the residents to have had this group in place, as this new regional group will then be able to simply activate plans already drawn up rather than having to take some emergency (ie not well developed) stopgap actions.

The fact that the meeting was well attended and well received by the civic leaders should be very important to the citizens in and around the Fairfield area. The next meeting will be held on Monday, July 25 at 7 pm at the firehouse. Any interested citizens are encouraged to attend!

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