One volunteer fire chief and his officers are realizing the power of collaboration to improve training, staffing, and ultimately, improved emergency services.
The volunteers at Wright Township Volunteer Fire Department have been working to merge Mountain Top fire companies into one regional fire department, a plan he said will standardize how departments buy equipment, train volunteers and provide faster response times to emergencies.
Wright Township Fire Chief Dave Pettit said emergency responders should be forward-thinking.
We're trying to set ourselves up for the future, Pettit said. I don't think that the fire services anywhere, including Mountain Top, are going to be able to survive without doing that.
Pettit holds responsible the struggling economy for a national decline of volunteers.
It's evident around the country that fire companies are hurting, Pettit said.
He said when people lose their jobs or take on a second job to make ends meet, volunteer work is the first thing to go.
Rice Township Assistant Fire Chief Paul Eyerman said that right now his department is struggling to keep qualified fire truck drivers on call during working hours.
He said most of the department's members are at their jobs between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. He added that weekend and evening staffing is strong.
Eyerman said the department is working to solve the shortage problem. Until then, Wright Township volunteers are simultaneously dispatched for emergencies in Rice Township.
A mutual aid agreement in Mountain Top has departments sharing coverage area responsibilities when needed. Pettit said a merger will bring all administrative and training functions under one roof, a logical step because the departments already share coverage areas.
On the other side of the Valley, two Back Mountain fire companies successfully merged into the Back Mountain Regional Fire and EMS on Jan. 1.
Mark Van Etten, the department's president, said it took about three years to officially merge Dallas Fire and Ambulance and Lehman Township Fire Rescue-EMS.
Van Etten said the department now has spending power and keeps employees scheduled around the clock. It has upgraded its paramedics license and doubled its employees.
And that is all a part of this merger, Van Etten said.
He said officials can now consider improvements such as a centralized station and a contemporary training facility. He clarified that they have not made formal plans for these improvements, only that they can consider them.
Back Mountain Regional now provides emergency services to Dallas Borough and Dallas, Lake and Lehman townships.
Though Back Mountain has paid employees, Van Etten said they still depend on volunteers for fire and medical emergencies. He agreed with Pettit and said that declining volunteerism was a driving force behind regionalizing.
In Rice Township, Eyerman said he would be happy to be part of a regionalization, though getting other departments on board might pose problems.
Slocum Township Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Ron Burd said he does not expect its department to join in regionalizing. Burd, 23, said the department is the smallest in the Mountain Top mutual aid program with about 50 fire and EMS volunteers. He said they respond to about 100 emergencies in a year.
He said the department is sound in staffing, equipment and administrative functions and he sees no reason to merge with other departments.
Mountain Top Hose Co. 1 President David Hourgian said in a voicemail that, at this time, he and his fellow volunteers have not discussed a merger.
Van Etten said some volunteers spend 20, 30 and even 50 years building a department's reputation and many may decline a merger to preserve their legacy.
There's always going to be one or two individuals from neighboring departments who will like to keep things the way they were 20 years ago, Van Etten said.
Though he said most of these traditionalists represent the life-blood of their communities, maintaining quality service is pushing away from the old ways.
It's difficult to operate on tradition alone nowadays, Van Etten said.