Baby steps for regionalizing fire protection

Elected officials from several municipalities agreed Thursday night that steps are being taken – although small at first – to help the Greater Lycoming Emergency Services Alliance Committee gain ground.

The organization, which includes fire departments from the city, DuBoistown, Montoursville, South Williamsport and Old Lycoming Township, was formed a few years ago to explore ways that volunteer and paid fire departments could save costs and increase manpower.

A state Department of Community and Economic Development consultant’s recommendation last month advised departments to continue seeking ways to pool resources while bringing borough councilmen and township supervisors into the mix.

Some of those discussions took place Thursday at a meeting of the Lycoming-Sullivan Boroughs Association.

Lycoming County Commissioner Jeff Wheeland said volunteer fire departments are faced with dwindling membership and an increasingly older volunteer base. Younger recruits brought into volunteer departments often leave after a few years – usually due to family and work demands.

“The statistics are frightening,” he said. “What are we going to do when the (dispatch) tones go off and nobody shows? That’s where we’re getting to.”

Meanwhile, paid departments – such as the city’s – often struggle with available funding to purchase new equipment or to pay for additional firefighters, according to the study.

While many questions remain, Wheeland said municipal leaders need to think of new ways to “incentivize” volunteers to help them answer the call when needed.

Paying for volunteers’ time while training and for responding to calls are some options, but “is that the county’s role?” Wheeland asked.

Dave Shirn, a former Old Lycoming Township fire chief and now lieutenant, said potential volunteers often are put off by 300 to 400 hours of mandatory training before they can even respond to a scene on a fire truck.

“You’re going to lose them,” he said.

And he said the ability for volunteer fire departments to muster manpower during the day is getting more difficult.

“It’s happening more than you can imagine,” he warned.

John Yingling, county director of public safety, who also oversees the county’s 911 center, said some volunteer departments have found success with a live-in program that houses college students at the fire station while they perform tasks and respond to calls.

“That was a good shot in the arm. But the thing is, they’re college students. How long are they going to stay?” he said.

Yingling said Lycoming County sees quite a bit of fire and emergency service activity. Last year departments responded to almost 1,400 fire calls – 126 of them working structure fires. There were 3,600 motor vehicle accidents and 8,500 medical calls in 2012, he said.

“It’s busy,” Yingling said.

The alliance would cover about half of the county’s population, he said.

Although not part of the alliance at this time, Loyalsock Township originally was. DuBoistown Councilman Michael Cashera said representatives from there were invited to attend Thursday, but had other obligations.

Cashera also asked if the city would need to hire additional firefighters to make the alliance work. Yingling said that would depend on how quickly elected officials want firefighters to respond and how many are needed at an emergency scene.

Shirn said one of the biggest issues that needs to be resolved is on workers’ compensation insurance to allow firefighters from different departments to work in other municipalities. As an Old Lycoming Township volunteer firefighter, Shirn said he cannot assist in other areas unless dispatched by the county’s 911 center.