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From the Track

Fairfield Fire & EMS: Now for the rest of the story…

Kip Hamilton

(March 2011) As both an operational EMT, an EMS Officer of Fairfield Fire and EMS and a member of the Board of Directors, I was somewhat surprised by the article that appeared in the February, 2011 Issue entitled "Fairfield Fire Department in serious financial trouble" and submitted a letter to the Editor expressing some of my thoughts on the subject.

This letter sparked an email exchange between me and the editor, Mike Hillman, on a number of subjects, one of which was the problem that volunteer organizations in general seem to be having these days in attracting new members and even holding on to those who used to be active.

Somewhere in the emails Mike Hillman, the paper’s Editor, asked me if I would be interested in writing a recurring commentary column for his paper on various current topics. We discussed that too frequently the news we get now days is prepackaged for us in easy-to-digest sound bites. We gobble these Bagel News Bites up and move on, completely missing the underlying foundation of what is really going on. In many cases, the WHAT of what is going on is interesting, but the WHY is so much more important for us to understand.

So, for the next few months, together let us consider the underpinnings of some of the news of the day…near and far and see if we can gain a more personal appreciation of what is happening around us and why. Anyway, back to the story… Once I told Mike I would give this monthly commentary column a go, he said, "Great! Why don’t you start out by writing about the situation with the fire company?" That seemed reasonable and certainly worthwhile, so, here we go…

Fairfield Fire & EMS is not currently in serious financial trouble. In fact, because of our diligent planning and budgeting, we are one of the most financially sound fire and rescue companies in all of Adams County. Now, this is not to say that this could not change at some point in the future, but for now, we do not have a financial problem, serious or otherwise.

If we are experiencing a problem, it is a membership problem, not a financial one; and we are not alone in this at all. Picture in your mind years ago when a small town fire house siren sounded… Most of the businesses in town closed, normal activities ceased and the streets were full of citizen volunteers in various stages of dress, running to the fire station to man the apparatus. Well, sadly, that is no longer the case.

One could probably write a book on the causes of the falling rates of volunteerism in our society today. People are too busy. They don’t work in the local area any longer. The "me" generation couldn’t be bothered to put themselves out for their neighbors. Some one else will take care of it for me. Who’s left on Idol tonight? That's what I pay my taxes for. There are probably hundreds of reasons people use to justify their lack of personal involvement in the critical activities in their communities.

I would guess that most people do not realize that the Fairfield fire department and ambulance company is almost completely volunteer staffed and volunteer funded...that is to say that although the six municipalities that the department serves send contributions of various amounts to the department, the firefighting and emergency medical services that the citizens in these communities receive is, for all intents and purposes, a FREE SERVICE to them.

We are not supported by tax dollars at all. We mainly exist from donations and membership fees, fundraising activities such as bingo and the associated games of chance, and reimbursements we receive for transporting ambulance patients. We do have a paid EMT crew on duty during the day, but their salaries are funded in large part by the volunteers to make sure that there is coverage for "our" communities during the work day.

What we do each year represents tens of thousands of man-hours of service freely given to our friends and neighbors. Last year we ran 203 fire related calls and 711 EMS related calls to the municipalities that we serve...all done without any tax support at all. Take a moment and let that sink in. In these times of rising government expenses and shrinking tax revenues where local and state governments all over the country are in serious financial trouble and cutting services to their citizens and raising taxes, here in Fairfield we have an unusual display of the selfless personal contribution to the community that has made our country great…residents helping their fellow residents, asking nothing in return. You call us. We come. It doesn’t matter if it is a beautiful Sunday afternoon or 2:00 in the morning in the middle of a February ice storm ...we will roll out of bed and get there to help you, without any financial consideration at all. Why would we do such a thing? We don’t know really…there has been mention of some common genetic defect, but we really can’t say for sure!

If we do need help, it would be in the form of volunteer service. Basically, we need warm bodies. We are finding ourselves having to do more and more with fewer and fewer people. Every year in the recent past our call volume has increased over the previous year, but our membership has not. No longer are our volunteers just a bunch of country boys who like to drive big trucks fast and blow the siren. Each one of our operational volunteer members, male and female, is trained to the same national/state fire and EMS standards that a professional fire company must meet. That represents thousands of hours of training and continuing education activities alone.

We would love to have more people to help with the fundraising and administrative activities, but we could seriously use some help on the operational side, which was the Chief's main point at the Borough meeting. So many of our volunteer members who are available in the evenings do not work in the area during the day, so, many times the fire equipment has to respond during the day with less than the optimal number of crew members. Additionally, it puts a serious strain on those few volunteers whose local employment allows them to staff the fire equipment during the day. Also, you may not realize that our ambulances cover the largest area in terms of square miles of any fire department in the county.

From time to time (and at an increasing rate) we are having volunteer staffing issues. If and when this situation reaches a critical point, we will have to seriously consider having to hire paid firefighters and additional paid EMTs as well. At that point, we would then have to look toward the municipalities we serve for funding assistance in the form of a Fire Tax levied on their residents…that would be you. Legally, these local governments have the obligation of providing their residents with fire protection services; it’s just that over the years we have been taking care of it. You might have heard of this Fire Tax before and wondered what it is and what it is for.

Currently, staffed with volunteers, it costs the department upwards of $700,000 a year just to operate…believe me, that’s a lot of bingo! The last new ambulance we purchased cost over $225,000 to put in service. A firefighter’s personal protective equipment costs almost $4,000 per set and they can only be used for a certain number of years, then they must be retired. We will have to replace one of the fire trucks in a few years and by that time we will probably be looking at having to pay ¾ of a million dollars to get it on the street. And have you noticed the price of diesel fuel lately?

Again, at this point, there has not been any cost charged to the residents for our equipment and services and we would like to keep it that way. But, if that changes, you can do the math and see what the additional tax burden would be on each household if the municipalities had to assume the financial support of such an operation. We’re calcu-guessing that if our station were to go 100% paid staff, 24/7, that on top of the reimbursements, etc that the fire company would receive, it would take somewhere between $1 Million and $1.5 Million per year that would have to be divided between the surrounding communities. I don’t know about you, but as a Carroll Valley resident, that’s an awfully scary proposition, but, my friends, that is the potential. The good news is that we can work together to help keep the potential from becoming the reality!

We really do not want to reach that critical point as much as you don’t want us to, so we are putting out the call for new members! We derive a major portion of our support from our weekly bingo games. We need help staffing the kitchens and the floor...especially callers...for our regular Thursday night bingos and we could use help in some other important administrative and fundraising areas which would take a lot of pressure off our current members and enable us to do a few more things to help insure our long-tern viability. We can certainly support ourselves and continue to provide the high-caliber /no-cost service that our citizens are accustomed to, but we could use your help. We will be grateful for whatever time you can give, from one night of bingo a month to running weekly on an EMS night crew.

Our Junior Member program is open to those 14-17 yrs; those 18 and above are welcome as active adult members. Some previous operational experience on either the fire side or the EMS side is always helpful and will speed up the point at which you can start running calls, but it’s certainly not necessary. We will provide the necessary training. In fact, this past semester we, in conjunction with the Fairfield Area School System and the Harrisburg Area Community College, sponsored an EMT class given to juniors and seniors at Fairfield as a part of their high school curriculum. It was a first for Fairfield and it was a great success.

We are looking forward to integrating these energetic, new EMTs into our program, but we ask that if you have even the slightest level of interest in helping your family, friends and members of your community when they need help the most, please call or better yet, stop by the station at 106 Steelman St, next to the little league ball fields in Fairfield, and pick up an application to join our department. Please help us so we can continue to help you!

Thanks for your interest and we’ll talk again next month!

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