John Mack - Newtown Supervisor
First Responders Category

The Future of Newtown Townships's Paid Fire Services

Applying BCPC's Fire Services Analysis to Newtown Township

On April 1, 2021, I attended a Zoom meeting hosted by the Bucks County Consortium. At that meeting Evan Stone, Executive Director of the Bucks County Planning Commission (BCPC), made a presentation titled “The Future of Bucks County Fire Service.” This was actually a summary of the full update report (download the presentation here and the full report here). This post focuses on applying the takeaways from that presentation to Newtown Township.

I recorded a short section from the end of the presentation and the Q&A session in the following podcast:

Mack's Newtown Voice · Future Of Bucks County's Fire Services
Paid Fire Departments

Newtown is only one of six Bucks County Municipalities that has a paid fire department: the Newtown Emergency Services Department (NESD) of 8 full-time fire fighters (see table below).

All of them operate only Monday through Friday and depend on volunteers to fill the gaps on weekends and after hours on weekdays. In Newtown, we have the volunteer Newtown Fire Association (NFA). As is the case with many, if not all, volunteer fire departments, have a problem answering calls and recruiting/retaining members (read “The Volunteer Newtown Fire Association is at a Turning Point”).

FACT: In 2018 there were 38,000 volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania. In 1970 there were 300,000.

This has led Newtown Township Supervisors to do several things, among them:

  1. Implement a Fire Service Agreement between NESD and Newtown Fire Association whereby NESD Chief Glenn Forsythe is now also the Fire Chief of the NFA. Paradoxically, this agreement also cut the Township's yearly funding of NFA from $175,000 to $160,000. 

  2. Apply for a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from FEMA. "Our solution," noted Chief Forsythe in the SAFER application, "is to hire 5 additional Firefighters so that we can create 7 day a week coverage with 12 hour shifts and maintain proper rotations. Each position will carry a salary of $67,877.80 and benefits of $57,713.63 which includes FICA/Medicare, Family Medical/Vision/Rx/Dental, Life & Disability Insurance, Worker's Camp, and Pension Contributions."
How Much Does It Cost to Run a Full-Time Fire Department?

It depends.

According to the BCPC, the average cost of a firefighter without benefits is $59,904.00 per year based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other studies. With benefits the cost of a firefighter is estimated to be $78,000.00 per year based on a 40 hour week.

NESD has a staff of 8 full-time firefighters with a 60 hour week. Based on BCPC’s estimate, those firefights should cost the township $117,000 each per year, not including equipment purchases, training, etc. The 2021 budget includes $1,171,225 for NESD salaries, benefits, supplies, and training), which is $146,403 per firefighter!

The SAFER 3-year grant application for $1,883,875.45 is for hiring 5 firefighters at an estimated $125,592 per year per firefighter with benefits included. This is based on an estimated entry-level salary of $67,660 plus $57,713 in benefits.

It should be noted that for an urban “Demand Zone” such as Newtown Township with more than 1,000 resident per square mile, requires a "Minimum Staff to Respond" of 15 firefighters. So, even with a staff of 13 (8 current + 5 new hires with SAFER grant money, if available), Newtown Township would still be short 2 full-time firefighters.

Newtown Township is considered an "Urban Demand Zone" because there are >1,000 residents per square mile.
Where Will the Money Come From?

A SAFER grant (see above) is one option, but it should be noted that Newtown Township has already failed in its first attempt to secure that money.

Some money may come from Newtown Borough. At the February 16, 2021, Board of Supervisors Work Session, the supervisors proposed a possible Intermunicipal Cooperation Agreement for fire services whereby the Township would charge Newtown Borough $300,000 per year for providing fire services between 6 AM and 6 PM, Monday through Friday (read the minutes of that meeting). Negotiations are continuing between the Township and Borough.

The only other option is to raise taxes – specifically a special “fire tax.” A fire tax is levied by some municipalities – including Newtown Township, which currently has a 1.00 mill fire tax. By law, a fire tax cannot exceed 3 mills unless a municipal referendum is passed and only up to 1 mill may be used for salary and benefits, according the BCPC.

BTW, Newtown Township can implement a fire tax up to 4.0 mills because a referendum was approved by voters several years ago to allow it.

Related Content:

Posted on 10 Apr 2021, 01:37 - Category: First Responders

January 2021 Newtown Fire & Emergency Services Incident Report

At the Februray 24, 2021, Board of Supervisors (BOS) meeting, Fire Chief Glenn Forstythe presented the January 2021 Newtown Fire & Emergency Services Incident Report, which breaks down incidents by type, by township in which they occurred, and which incidents were handled by the volunteer Newtown Fire Association (NFA) and which by the paid Newtown Emergency Services Department (NESD). 

The NFA is on call from 6pm to 6am Monday through Friday and on Weekends; NESD covers the weekdays from 6am to 6pm.

Types of Calls

There were a total of 85 calls in January, 2021. Here's the breakdown by type of call:

A "Fire" incident may involve building fires, cooking fires, brush/grass fires, dumpster fires, etc. "Hazardous Condition" calls do not involve fires. These include gas leaks, wiring short circuits, etc. 

“Good Intent Calls” make up on average about 20-25% of incidents. A good intent is like a false alarm but with reason to think that it was an actual emergency. Here are a few classic examples: (1) You're riding down the highway and come upon a vehicle surround by a huge cloud of smoke. You call the fire department and when they arrive they find out the vehicle isn't actually on fire but has burst a hose or run hot.  (2) Certain weather conditions can also make dryer exhaust looks like smoke and that make for a lot of good intent fire calls. (3) Outdoor grills when first started can also produce enough flame and smoke and sometimes these are reported as fires.

Calls By Township/Borough

The majority of calls (71%) are within Newtown Township with about 12% in Newtown Boarough.

Posted on 25 Feb 2021, 14:09 - Category: First Responders

The Volunteer Newtown Fire Association is at a Turning Point

The future of the all-volunteer Newtown Fire Association (NFA) may be determined in the next few months. This is based on plans to address continued staffing and leadership challenges. NFA president Warren Dallas read a letter outlining these challenges to members at the September 28, 2020, regular meeting of the Association.

NFA Station 45 on Liberty Street in Newtown Borough

“Due to a variety of reasons,” noted Dallas, “the Newtown Fire Association is at times unable to provide the proper minimum staffing” to respond to fire calls in Newtown Borough and Newtown Township. As is the case in PA and the rest of the country, the NFA is struggling to recruit, train and retain volunteer firefighters. These problems have worsened this year due to COVID-19.

There are many reasons why volunteer members leave or stop being active. Younger members have been unable to find affordable housing in Newtown or their careers take them elsewhere or they go to college. Even if they stay, many are unable to respond to calls due to family and work demands that have limited their availability.

A significant problem is that the Association's membership is aging and some members have cut back on responding to fire calls or retired from responding entirely. Fifty percent of the NFA's active membership is over 50 years old and almost half of them are over 60. This doesn’t bode well for active firefighting, which is better suited to the young.

A Brief History of Newtown Fire Services

Staffing isn’t a new problem for the NFA. In 1996 the Association approached Newtown Township and requested assistance with fire services coverage due to the lack of volunteers available during daytime hours. To meet that need, the township established the Newtown Emergency Services Department (NESD) to provide fire services coverage Monday through Friday from the hours of 8:00 AM - 4:30 PM.

In 2002 the NESD expanded their weekday hours from 6 AM - 6 PM due to the continued limited availability of volunteers. That level of service continues today. The NFA provides coverage for the remaining hours; 6 PM - 6 AM during the week and 24 hours on Saturday and Sunday. NFA also provides for 24-hour coverage during twelve (12) holidays in which the township is closed.

It should be noted that the NFA owns all the firefighting trucks and equipment used by the Association AND the township. It also owns Newtown Township’s Station 55 on Municipal Drive as well as Station 45 on Liberty Drive in the Borough (pictured above).

Hiring New Staff

Recently, the NFA has been working with the township to better quantify the problem and to develop solutions. One solution was Newtown Township’s May 2020, application for a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from FEMA. Unfortunately, as of September 23, 2020 - which is well past the July 1, 2020, award date – the township has not received confirmation that it has won an award. The grant sought funding to cover the expenses of 5 new NESD career firefighters for three years as was outlined in the “Strategic Management Planning Program,” which was submitted to the Newtown Board of Supervisors on September 18, 2020.

"Our solution," noted Chief Forsythe in the SAFER application, "is to hire 5 additional Firefighters so that we can create 7 day a week coverage with 12 hour shifts and maintain proper rotations. Each position will carry a salary of $67,877.80 and benefits of $57,713.63 which includes FICA/Medicare, Family Medical/Visionl/Rx/Dental, Life& Disability Insurance, Worker's Camp, and Pension Contributions."

Meanwhile, recruitment and training continues. These are both time-consuming activities that are primarily performed by NFA staff. If career staff could organize, conduct and track recruiting and training it would free up firefighter's time to respond to fire calls verses spending time managing these programs. “Recruiting has been a challenge as various studies have noted, but it could reap rewards whether for volunteer or potentially future career firefighters,” noted Mr. Dallas.

Who’s in Charge?

Chief Glenn Forsyth heads the NESD and is technically the chief in charge of the NFA, although it has been noted that in the past many personnel in the volunteer staff  did not realize Chief Forsythe’s NFA role (read “Newtown Township Releases the 2018 Fire and Emergency Services Study”).

That changed at the NFA meeting, when NFA Fire Chief Matthew Gerhard announced he was retiring from his leadership role. When Mr. Dallas asked if there were any volunteers to fill the role, none responded. Perhaps everyone already understood that the Mr. Forsythe also should become the Chief of the Newtown Fire Association. This would require approval by NFA membership and the Township Supervisors.

In closing, Mr. Warren said “The Association would welcome the opportunity to work with Newtown Township and the Borough of Newtown to develop a plan to ensure the residents, employees and visitors in Newtown are appropriately protected at all times. The Association expects that volunteer firefighters will have a role in supporting fire service in Newtown for many years to come.” It is uncertain, however, what the exact role will be.

Posted on 05 Oct 2020, 12:05 - Category: First Responders

Newtown Fire Association is Well-Trained & Qualified

The PA Office of the State Fire Commissioner recently recognized the Newtown Fire Association (NFA) for successfully attaining the 75% recognition level as part of the Participating Department Recognition Program.

The Participating Department Recognition Program recognizes those departments that support promote and encourage their emergency response personnel to voluntarily certify at various levels in accordance with nationally recognized and sanctioned Professional Qualification Standards.

"Your organization has accomplished an important goal and should be proud of this achievement," said Bruce Trego, State Fire Commissioner, in an April 18, 2019, letter to NFA Chief Matthew Gerhard. "With this recognition, you have demonstrated that your organization is competent and capable in providing quality services to the residents and visitors of the Commonwealth," said Trego.

The letter came with the following certificate:

 

Posted on 01 May 2019, 13:01 - Category: First Responders

Newtown Township Releases the 2018 Fire and Emergency Services Study

In November, 2017, Newtown Township issued an RFP seeking a fire service consultant experienced in the management and operations of volunteer/combination fire departments to undertake “an organizational, effectiveness and overall efficiency study on staffing levels, facilities, apparatus needs, equipment, administration, financials pertaining to the fire service and the services of the department serving our community.”

In February, 2018, Harry R. Carter. Ph.D., L.L.C., a municipal fire protection firm headquartered in New Jersey, was approved by the Newtown Board of Supervisors (BOS Definition) to perform the analysis (see minutes of the February 14, 2018, BOS meeting). Dr. Harry Carter has more than 35 years’ experience as a municipal fire protection consultant. He has been a member of the fire and emergency services world since 1964.

The final Fire and Emergency Services Study was completed in December, 2018, and is currently available on the Township website here.

A Brief History of Newtown Fire Services

The Newtown Fire Association (NFA), which is a volunteer fire department, provides fire protection to both Newtown Township and Newtown Borough. In 1996 the fire association approached the township and requested assistance with the fire services coverage due to the lack of volunteers available during daytime hours. To meet that need, the township established the Newtown Emergency Services Department (NESD) to provide fire services coverage Monday through Friday from the hours of 8AM - 4:30PM.

In 2002 the Emergency Services Department expanded their hours from 6AM-6PM due to the limited availability of volunteers. That level of service continues today. NFA continues to provide coverage for the remaining hours, 6 P.M. - 6 A.M. during the week and 24 hours on Saturday and Sunday. NFA also provides for 24-hour coverage during twelve (12) holidays in which the township is closed.

Fire Study Recommendations

Dr. Carter’s study made several recommendations. The following is a list of some of the most important recommendations that pertain to the reorganization and effectiveness of Newtown’s fire services. Please refer to the full study here.

“Let me suggest that a major problem in Newtown Township involves the staffing level of your fire department,” noted Dr. Carter in the study. “I must recommend that you broaden your career staffing to cover a seven-day per week operation.”

According to Dr. Carter, many personnel in the volunteer staff  “do not recognize” the fact that that Glenn Forsythe is the chief in charge. “We did not see any organizational chart which accurately portrayed the manner in which the organization operates,” said Dr. Carter.

The report recommends that a “true combination fire department” should be created which combines Station 45 (the volunteer station on Liberty Street in the Borough) and Station 55 (the paid staff station located in the Municipal Complex at 100 Municipal Drive in the Township) under the control of the career fire chief (Glenn Forsyth).

“The existing and future [Newtown] population that can reasonably be expected to evolve may not be of a type and kind … willing to become active volunteer members of the fire department,” said Dr. Carter in his report. “This fact will at some point in the future lead your community in the direction of some form of combination of full-time career fire department in line with your paid-on-call workers in the future.”

Dr. Carter recommended getting out “in front of this issue” by forming a committee and to determine how new combination department should develop.

Meanwhile, according to the report, career staffing hours should be expanded to a seven days a week schedule. This recommendation is based upon a review of response data [in 2018, the average time for fire personnel to get the scene of a fire call ranged from 9 minutes, 50 seconds to 10 minutes, 20 seconds. The longest recorded response time was 19 minutes.]

The fire stations are poorly positioned, according to the report. “The station on Municipal Drive is poorly located with regard to the township and the borough,” said Dr. Carter. “The Borough station is also poorly located for its role in the protection of the township,” he added. The report recommends that consideration be given to developing plans for a new fire station in the area of Sycamore Street.

“It was my observation that many members of the organization do not believe their input is really desired and appreciated,” Dr. Carter noted. “It seemed to my associate and me that an insufficient number of ways exist within the fire company for the agency as a whole to communicate with its members and itself. The key to continued success … is to maintain an open and sincere line of communications between and among the officers and members of your fire department,” suggested Dr. Carter.

“During the interview process my associate and I found that many people spoke about the manner in which apparatus acquisitions were being conducted,” said Dr. Carter. The report recommended that a formal apparatus acquisitions committee be created which is responsible for working to develop the recommendations for new apparatus and equipment. This committee must have members of both the career and volunteer staffs and will serve in an advisory capacity to the career Fire Chief.

Finally, Dr. Carter recommended that all members be made aware of the nature of the financial arrangements that the fire association (and thus the new combination fire department) has with Newtown Township. He suggested that this be part of a facilitated meeting involving all members of the department. This meeting should be facilitated by someone outside of the department with a fire and EMS background who has experience in conducting such meetings. “All of the issues identified in this report could be addressed at that time,” said Dr. Carter.

Further Reading:

Posted on 29 Dec 2018, 11:27 - Category: First Responders

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