Public safety leaders seek unity between fire departments

Speaking at the opening of the fire service and local government symposium Saturday, County Commissioner Rick Mirabito urged the group to think about the future of area fire services.

“From a bigger perspective, we have to think about how we’re going to deliver fire services not just two, three years from now, but really 20 to 25 years from now,” he said.

“So often we don’t have the time to really work on that and to work on the trust that’s really necessary to implement changes because you are all so busy doing what you do, which is running boroughs or townships or putting out fires and saving people’s lives. We’re hoping that this is the start of putting together a plan where the county can provide some leadership into solving these problems.

The impetus in organizing the symposium, according to Mirabito, came from listening to concerns from members of the firefighting community and leaders in municipal governments. About 60 people attended the event at the Transit Center II, in the city.

Panel discussions highlighted areas of concern. The director of the county’s Department of Public Safety, John Yingling, moderated the session which featured representatives from various state agencies and organizations.

Some of the overriding themes throughout the morning long session covered the lack of resources, monetary and manpower, needed to provide services, tensions that sometimes exist between the fire departments in a community and elected officials.

Yingling noted that one problem with communications between the two groups is that the officials don’t always understand the firefighters’ vernacular.

“They don’t necessarily always understand or speak the fire service lingo. I had one individual say, well they talked about this still thing and a tactical thing and a working box and all that and I wasn’t really sure what it all meant so I just nodded my head,” Yingling said.

He spoke of the need to design fire response for the community served. He said that whether a community is rural or urban, the population density and their ages are all taken into consideration. He noted that with the change in health care systems in the county, there have been an increase in interfacility transfers and a growing number of calls where the fire departments are acting as extended caregivers.

“We have seen an increase in emergency calls, we know we’ve seen an increase in unresponsive individuals, possibly drug use. We’re seeing the role of the fire department to be extended caregivers,” Yingling said.

As people are discharged from hospitals sooner, many times because of their insurance coverage, he said that people are being treated at home. Sometimes a person returns home and at some point, they need help, because they don’t have family nearby, so they call 911.

“This is becoming a growing call volume and it does take its toll on people. We are seeing a change in how the public sees the services of the fire department,” Yingling said.

The costs of operating a fire department have risen drastically too, with the expense of purchasing a new ladder truck trending upward to a million dollars and engines costing around $650,000.

A panel of local fire chiefs and George Stapleton, from the PA State Fire Academy, addressed the importance and expense of outfitting firefighters and fire departments.

Also attending the session was state Rep. Jeff Wheeland, R-Loyalsock Township. He spoke about the uncertainty of the future of public safety, which includes both fire and police.

“Once you get below the Mason-Dixon line you have countywide paid fire departments, supplemented by volunteers who are on the payroll. I’m not an advocate for or against,” Wheeland said, “but I don’t think it takes too much of a crystal ball to realize that’s where we’re headed in the commonwealth.”

On this issue, Stapleton said, “There are two things firefighters hate, the first thing is change and the second thing is the way things are right now.”

He said that one of the problems is the lack of a good working relationship between fire departments and the governments of the municipalities they serve.

“You talk about trust relationships. You have to open those lines of communication. I get flooded every single day with phone calls from fire chiefs, supervisors and boroughs, saying how do we improve the relationships? How do we talk to them? They won’t talk to us, they don’t trust us. I do my best to guide them to a direction but there is a huge amount of distrust out there between municipalities and what the fire departments are trying to do,” he said.

“If you don’t have a good working relationship with your municipality, start now,” said Mike McGrady, a representative of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, who also served on the panel.

Dave Sanko, executive director of the state Association of Township Supervisors, echoed the need for improved communications.

“There have been some historical challenges between fire departments and townships, between fire departments and fire departments, between townships and townships, between all the first responders, maybe September 11 brought a lot of things to light and forced a lot of things to come together, but we are way better today than we used to be but we are not anywhere near where we are as good as we need to be.

Hopefully we will leave here today with a renewed commitment to communicate with each other and to share information with each other not just between the departments and the boards, but among boards within the departments,” he said.