Regionalized fire protection required for county’s future

Amen.

That was our first reaction to a call by Williamsport Fire Chief Todd Heckman last week for City Council to explore regionalization of fire protection with volunteer departments.

We have been begging for regionalization of county or at least Greater Williamsport firefighting operations for more than a decade.

In our view, the city’s budgetary limits will make it impossible to maintain the size of the paid fire force it has for many more years.

And all the surrounding volunteer firefighting units are suffering from the reduced numbers of volunteers they are getting. Funding and training challenges as well as the changing world that no longer makes volunteering at the local firehouse a practical choice are sharply reducing the numbers available.

None of these factors are going away in the future.

If anything, Williamsport’s $6.9 million annual fire protection budget will be going up, not down. Health insurance, workers compensation costs and the price of purchasing and maintaining equipment will all likely be increasing in the future. The city is just not going to have the money to pay for the fire force of 33 it has today.

Likewise, the factors that are driving down volunteer numbers in surrounding communities are embedding into the future.

Statewide, the number of firefighting volunteers has dropped from 300,000 in the 1970s to 38,000 today.

Conditions in the region are merely a microcosm of the statewide trend of the past four decades.

The solution?

The city needs to move to a limited paid force of platoon chiefs and limited manning of stations. That needs to be augmented by volunteers from the city and beyond, with those volunteers responding for fires routinely in multiple communities.

Parochial considerations need to go away. Territorialism needs to go away.

The most important thing is fire protection for everyone in our region. Everyone agrees on that.

Serving that overriding need will require vision and flexibility by fire protection leaders in the future.

And the future is now.

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