Category: First Responders
It’s no secret that attracting and retaining volunteer firefighters is a growing problem not only in Newtown, but also in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and the United States in general.
Newtown Fire Chief Glenn Forsyth recently appeared before the Newtown Borough Council to report that Newtown has “a very active recruitment drive right now, and we're trying everything we can to recruit new members…[but]…the volunteer fire service is dwindling quickly” (read “Newtown Volunteer Fire Service 'Dwindling Quickly', Chief Says”).
The Chief also appeared before the Newtown Township Board of Supervisors (BOS) at the October 18, 2021, Newtown Township 2022 Budget Presentation meeting. He answered my question about how the $330,000 donation to the Newtown Fire Association (NFA) in the Township Manager’s recommended 2022 budget will be used.
To pay for this and other fire expenses - mostly for the cost of hiring a new Deputy Fire Chief - the Township Manager recommended a new 1.5 mil tax increase to be added to the Fire Protection Fund.
I wanted to get more details so I met with Warren Dallas, president of the NFA who went over the numbers with me. Here is the plan, which is an attempt to increase volunteer firefighter responses to fire calls and add some staffing reliability, especially for low turnout times.
- Pay for Call: Pay members for fire calls they respond to
- Duty Crew – Weeknights: Pay members for being available to respond to calls for a week at a time:
- Sunday to Thursday nights; 10 pm to 6 am
- Duty Crew – Weekend Nights: Pay members for being available to respond to calls on Friday and Saturday nights from 10 pm to 6 am
- Evening Crews – Weekdays: Pay members to be in station to respond to calls on evenings from 6 pm to 10 pm
- Weekend Day Crews: Pay members to be in station to respond to calls on Saturdays and Sundays from 6 am to 6 pm (12 hour shifts)*.
- Line Officer Stipend: Provide annual stipend to line officers
*NOTE: For the second year in a row, Newtown Township failed to get a FEMA SAFER Grant to cover the cost of hiring 5 new firefighters to cover weekends. The grant would have covered this expense for 3 years. Read “The Future of Newtown Township's Paid Fire Services”.
Current Plan vs Proposed Plan
* A resident noted that doubling the pay per call from $5 to $10 would increase the total amount from $12K to $24K, not $28,730. Warren Dallas explained how the latter number was calculated: In 2020 (and prior years), the Fire Association only paid members for responding to calls if they made 20% or more of the total calls. The $12,000 was actually rounded up. The 2022 plan was based on the total 2020 member responses of 2873 calls, whether the member made one call or more than 20% of the calls. Dropping the 20% minimum is being considered so the additional calls were factored into the cost.
Some numbers from page 14 of the recommended 2022 budget under FIRE PROTECTION:
- Management Salaries: $158,740 vs $108,000 (2021) – diff = $50,740: a 47% increase
- NFA Contribution: $330,000 vs $160,000 (2021) – diff = $170,000: a 106% increase
The $170,000 increase in NFA contribution will cover the added cost of the new retention plan versus the old plan ($128,730 - $27,600) PLUS the purchase of a new Fire Chief vehicle (approximately $65,000).
My preference would be to increase the NFA contribution by $128,730 to a total of $288,730 ($160,00 + $128,730). To pay for that, I would cut some expenses (such as hiring a new Deputy Fire Chief and buying a new Fire Chief vehicle) rather than implementing a new dedicated 1.5 mil tax to be levied every year.
We do not know if the new retention plan will work, but it is worth a shot. However, we shouldn’t at this time lock the township into a tax increase that potentially will not solve the problem.
For more information about NFA revenues and expenditures for the years 2019 through 2022, see the 2022 NFA General Fund Budget [LINK: https://bit.ly/NFA2022budget]
- “Newtown Township Moves Forward With Plans to Assess Newtown Borough a Monthly Fee for Use of Its Paid Newtown Emergency Services Department”
Posted on 01 Nov 2021, 11:38 - Category: First Responders
According to the the June 2021 Monthly Report for the Emergency Services Department (ESD) and the Newtown Fire Association (NFA), there were 111 combined calls for service that month. The breakdown according to the type of call/incident is shown in the following chart:
Of the 111 calls/incidents in June, 2021, 90 (81%) were in Newtown Township and 12 (11%) were in Newtown Borough. The rest were in Northampton Twp (5), Middletown Twp (3), and Lower Makefield (1). The locations of these calls are shown in the map below (multiple calls to the same location are not shown):
NOTE: To determine which calls were made by the paid Newtown Twp ESD (NT-ESD) versus those made by the volunteer NFA, you must refer to the June 2021 Monthly Report, which includes the date and time of day of each call. NT-ESD operates 5 days a week from 6 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday. NFA handles calls on weekends and other times during the week.Read More...
Posted on 18 Jul 2021, 01:19 - Category: First Responders
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:
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:
- 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.
- 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?
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.
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.
UPDATE: The Chief also appeared before the Newtown Township Board of Supervisors (BOS) at the October 18, 2021, Newtown Township 2022 Budget Presentation meeting. He answered my question about how the $330,000 donation to the Newtown Fire Association (NFA) in the Township Manager’s recommended 2022 budget will be used. The final approved budget includes about $128,000 to help pay for a new volunteer firefighter retention plan.
- “January 2021 Newtown Fire & Emergency Services Incident Report”: Only 1 out 56 calls (2%) made by NESD in January 2021 involved a fire; 70% involved rescue and EMS. According to BCPC, in 2018 there were 20,640 incidents in Bucks County - only 10% were actual fires.
Posted on 10 Apr 2021, 01:37 - Category: First Responders
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 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.
“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.Read More...
Posted on 05 Oct 2020, 12:05 - Category: First Responders