The Volunteers

cover shot_draftResidents of West Mayfield Borough will soon find out more about their fire department–a lot more.  The information will come from a new publication called, “The Volunteers.”  It will be a community-based, informative newsletter designed to raise awareness about fire safety, departmental services, and fundraising opportunities.

Although the fire department is a central institution within the borough, many residents are not aware of what actually goes on within the iconic red brick building on 37th Street.

For many people, their only interaction with the fire department is in times of need–during a house fire, gas leak, stuck kitten, or auto accident.  Other than that, we tend to have a general idea of what our fire department does.  We see the trucks and hear the sirens, but do we know about the countless hours of staff training?  Do we know a pumper truck from a squad truck?  Can we tell the difference between a Fire Chief and a Fire Captain?  And what about fire safety? Did you know that it costs more than $11,000 to outfit a firefighter from head to toe?

The West Mayfield Volunteer Fire Department wants to use its community newsletter to educate the public about its service and to encourage fire safety.  Through staff features, the newsletter will also introduce us to the firefighters who protect our community.

“By raising awareness of the fire department,” said Captain Bill Heaton, “we hope people will better value our services and understand the sacrifices we make for the well being of the community.  As a self-sustaining nonprofit organization, community support and donations are essential to our existence.  And support is directly linked to awareness.”

Protection without Paying for It

A recent analysis of the fire department’s fundraising efforts suggests that a lack of community awareness is largely responsible for a lack of material support from the community.   After studying fundraising data from 2008 to 2012, the fire department learned that each year only 14% of West Mayfield households contribute to the department’s annual fundraising campaign.

In 2012, only 66 out of 479 households made a monetary donation of any kind.

Households aside, the donation rate for individuals stands at approximately 13%.

Census data show that nearly 70% of all borough households are “family households,” which are statistically more likely to need emergency services. Census data from 2011 also show that the median household income in the borough is $42,130—a figure well below county and state income levels.

Fire Tax or Free Ride

“We are always concerned about the tax burden on our citizens,” said mayor Paul Farkas.  “It is always difficult to find the right balance between providing essential services and paying for them.  Most residents would agree that fire protection is essential, so we will do what we must to keep our residents safe.”

One of the tools available to local government is the co-called, “fire tax.”  Section 1302 of the Pennsylvania Borough Code gives West Mayfield the authority to levy a special tax to support, among other things, fire protection.  The Borough is authorized to raise property taxes by as much as 3 mils for fire protection.  At this rate, the average household would see $45 tax increase.

“I firmly believe that municipalities need to support their fire companies in some way,” says Dick Blosky in a recent interview, “whether it’s through a fire tax or some other way.”  Blosky is president of the Pennsylvania Fireman’s Association.  He also said that there is a wide range in how the 2,600 volunteer fire companies in the state are funded.  However, as fewer volunteers answer the call or become over burdened with fundraising activities, there is a growing trend in Pennsylvania toward imposing a fire tax on residents.

Donald Konkle, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute, said a fire tax is an important tool to be considered. “Obviously volunteer fire services are under a lot of pressure for manpower issues.  More volunteers leave because they are tired of the time commitment from fundraisers than are leaving from fire work,” Konkle said.

Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Ed Mann also says that some of those who leave the field often do so because too much time is spent on fundraising.  A recent study state-wide shows that over the past four decades the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped from 300,000 to an estimated 60,000 today.

Fare Share

Certainly, most volunteer fire departments would rather see their service sufficiently supported by generous public donations rather than by a coercive fire tax. Yet, as the cost of providing adequate fire protection escalates and volunteerism dwindles, the question how to support local fire departments is being forced onto many communities.  The trend across the state is toward the imposition of a local fire tax.

“In an emergency, every household, every resident, and every person in West Mayfield can count on our service.  We will be there, day or night,” Captain Heaton said.  “But when only 13-14% of the residents help pay for that service, we have to ask ourselves why.  We’ll gladly accept a $1 donation, so it’s not about economics.  We think it’s about awareness and value.  It’s our job to make the case to our citizens–face to face.”

Indeed, the fire department’s new community outreach newsletter is designed to do just that—to raise awareness about a vital community institution that has been saving lives and protecting property since 1928.

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