John Mack - Newtown Supervisor
The Volunteer Newtown Fire Association is at a Turning Point

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

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The opinions expressed here are solely those of John Mack and do not represent the opinions of any other person or entity.
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