John Mack - Newtown Supervisor
First Responders Category

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

Northampton Resolution is a Setback for Newtown Ambulance

At the November 14, 2018, Newtown Board of Supervisors meeting, Evan Resnikoff, Chief of Operations of the Newtown Ambulance Squad (NAS), commented that as of September 1, 2018, NAS is no longer the primary provider of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) for the East Holland section of Northampton Township after nearly 50 years of providing that service (view video below). This was the result of a 3-0 vote in August, 2018, by the Northampton supervisors to support Resolution Definition #2018-R-14 authorizing the Tri-Hampton Rescue Squad to be the primary provider of emergency medical and rescue services within the boundaries of Northampton Township.

Chief Resnikoff warned that this change could result in longer response times in the eastern end of Northampton Township, potentially putting lives at risk and opening the township to potential litigation. In addition, Chief Resnikoff noted that Newtown Ambulance stands to lose $16,000 in subscription drive revenue and $93,000 in NET billing revenue, or about 40 dispatched calls per month, of which 71% are billable calls. 

The $16,000 in subscription drive revenue came from about 378 donors. “We had an 18% rate of return last year total in all zip codes we mailed to,” noted Resnikoff. “So, I am hopeful that with lots of advertising we can at least make up the 378 within the 18940 zip code where we had a 21% rate of return for that portion of last year's mailing.”

Evan Resnikoff, Chief of Newtown Ambulance, makes a pitch for a subscription drive at the November 14, 2018, Board of Supervisors meeting.

According to an August 26, 2018, article in the Bucks County Courier Times (see below), “between Jan. 1, 2012, through June 30, 2018, Tri-Hampton responded to about 10,000 calls in the township, and nearly 26,000 calls in Northampton, Lower Southampton, Upper Southampton, Bensalem and Warwick combined…Newtown Ambulance responded to only about a third as many calls in the township, about 3,000, in the same time period.

Meanwhile, “Newtown Ambulance responded to more than 13,200 calls in Newtown Township, Newtown Borough, Northampton, Upper Makefield, Lower Makefield, Wrightstown and Middletown since 2012,” according to data cited in the article.

 


 

 

Posted on 18 Nov 2018, 01:05 - Category: First Responders

The Annual NFA BBQ Picnic Was a Great Success!

I attended the annual Newtown Fire Association (NFA) BBQ picnic last night at Station 55 on Municipal Drive in Newtown Township. There was a lot of great food to be had including steak filets, which you had to BBQ yourself, smoked ribs, which were excellent, corn on the cob, watermelon, cake, and last but not least, my homemade lasagna!

 

Newtown Fire Association firemen Rick and Matt Gerhard are ready to enjoy my lasagna at the annual BBQ!

A post shared by John Mack (@johnmacknewtown) on

It was a great opportunity to meet many NFA and Newtown Emergency Services members in a social setting and learn more about them and how they decided to volunteer to serve our community. They do a lot of work to be ready when needed. To serve a meal to volunteer firefighters has long been on my bucket list. I can now scratch it off my list, but more importantly, I am happy to report that my lasagna got rave reviews!

Volunteer Firefighter Crisis

Following the BBQ, the NFA held its monthly meeting, which I also attended as a representative of the Newtown Board of Supervisors. A big item on the agend concerned recruiting new members. Regarding that, consider these sobering facts (abstracted from a PSATS OpEd):

  • Volunteers at fire companies across Pennsylvania have dropped from 300,000 strong in the 1960s and ’70s to below 50,000 today.
  • At least 75 percent of fire companies are struggling with manpower at a time when the state’s population is aging. The average age of a firefighter is 50-something, and people are busier today than they were decades ago.
  • Communities would have to raise taxes almost $10 billion a year to switch to a paid model for fire service, according to the office of the state fire commissioner. Who can afford that kind of property tax increase in their community?

Posted on 26 Jun 2018, 01:47 - Category: First Responders

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