Several years ago, the Liberty Fire Co. No. 1 of Sinking Spring, the Lower Heidelberg Township Volunteer Fire Department, and the Citizen’s Hose Company No. 1 of Wernersville began joint training and coordinated responses to local emergency incidents in an effort to streamline their fire fighting and training efforts.
This cooperative effort led to discussions with their host local governments on the possibility of combining into a single fire department. As a result of those discussions, the Western Berks Fire Task Force was created when the boroughs of Sinking Spring and Wernersville and Lower Heidelberg Township along with their respective fire companies, Liberty Fire Co. No. 1 (Sinking Spring), Citizen’s Hose No. 1 (Wernersville), and the Lower Heidelberg Township Volunteer Fire Co. (Lower Heidelberg) all adopted joint resolutions creating a task force to study and make recommendations on the possible consolidation of the various fire companies into one combined fire department.
The task force was comprised of individuals from each community representing the following interests:
- A municipal elected official from each local government body;
- A citizen representative appointed by each municipality;
- A fire company representative from each fire company;
- A citizen representative appointed by each fire company; and
- An alternate fire company representative from each company.
Beginning in December of 2006, the task force held regularly scheduled monthly meetings to evaluate the feasibility and ramifications of consolidating into one company. Various committees were established to review and offer recommendations to the task force. Committees that were established included:
- A Legal Committee who was tasked with reviewing the existing company’s by-laws, and making recommendations for a comprehensive document to govern the new department;
- A Finance Committee who was tasked with reviewing financial statements, accounting practices, and the expenses and revenue of the existing companies and developing an accounting system to be used for the new department;
- A Personnel & Demographics Committee who was tasked with identifying and documenting information on the location of the existing fire stations, residences of firefighters, previous incident locations, and compiling training records of all personnel in the department; and
- An Equipment Committee who was responsible for compiling a comprehensive list of all equipment owned by the departments and identifying duplicate equipment and resources that could potentially be downsized.
Originally, the merger discussions included only the fire companies located in Lower Heidelberg Township, Sinking Spring, and Wernersville. However, as the task force began its deliberations, it became aware of the fact that the Citizen’s Hose Co. No. 1 of Wernersville has a history of providing fire protection service to approximately one-half of South Heidelberg Township. The Community Fire Co. of Fritztown located in South Heidelberg Township covers the other half of South Heidelberg Township.
To address this situation, the Western Berks Fire Task Force decided at its May 2007 meeting to approach the South Heidelberg Township elected officials with the task force’s concerns and to invite them to join the task force. The officials of South Heidelberg Township were very receptive to the invitation and desired to look at a long-term fire protection solution for the entire township, therefore the Community Fire Co. of Fritztown was also invited to participate on the task force.
The Western Berks Fire Task Force thoroughly discussed South Heidelberg Township’s position at a task force meeting and agreed to have South Heidelberg Township and the Community Fire Co. of Fritztown to join the task force.
Throughout the remaining years, the task force continued to meet on a monthly basis and reviewed several issues including;
- Insurance Services Office (ISO) Ratings – Historically, casualty insurance companies have used community fire ratings established by ISO as a basis for setting fire insurance rates for each municipality. The task force investigated, with the help of a representative from the ISO Office, how a consolidated fire department would impact each of the municipality’s ratings.
- Financial and Budget Information – Because each fire company had its own method of categorizing expenses and preparing their financial statements, each company’s financial information has to be dissected and broken down into each individual expenditure. A master chart of accounts was then formulated to build a comprehensive financial statement.
- Funding Formula – Determining a fair and equal format for providing funding for the new department was the topic of numerous discussions of the task force. A funding formula was developed by the task force and presented to each of the municipalities for their consideration.
- Fire Stations & Real Estate – Two of the four existing stations have a social quarters attached to them and therefore would need to be spilt off into a separate entity. The task force developed a number of solutions for this situation and also the remaining two stations which would become part of the new department. The social quarters at the Liberty Fire Co. No. 1 and the Community Fire Co. of Fritztown were not considered part of this consolidation and continue to operate on their own.
- Command Structure – The Fire Chiefs of the existing departments in collaboration with the other fire officers developed a proposed chain of command and presented it to the task force. With some minor modifications, this command structure is still be used in the new department.
- Volunteer Firefighter’s Relief Association – Each of the existing companies have a separate organization known as a relief association. The task force provided a recommendation that these separate relief organizations also be consolidated into one comprehensive agency.
After a number of meetings, discussions, and presentations, the Western Berks Fire Task Force presented its findings at a public meeting held on October 21, 2008, during which time the benefits of consolidation and risks of not consolidating were presented.
BENEFITS OF CONSOLIDATIONS
- Reliable long-term funding ensures a financially stable fire service.
- Removes the burden of fundraising from the firefighters.
- Combined administrative functions are more efficient than separate departments.
- More efficient use of apparatus and less duplication of equipment will result in cost savings.
- Combined training programs and greater cross training allows firefighters to accomplish more without sacrificing additional family time.
- Greater purchasing power will save on a variety of expenses.
- Merged departments have greater access to additional grants and financial incentives from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
- A combined, financially secure fire department allows for better long-term planning for all parties involved.
- Eliminates any territorial disputes which may arise between existing departments.
RISKS OF NOT CONSOLIDATING
- The increasing costs of operating a small department are beyond its individual fund-raising capabilities.
- Small stations are unable to meet staffing and increased training requirements.
- Personnel tend to follow merging departments to be part of the larger department.
- Individual stations all have times with low or no responding personnel.
- Loss of local employment has taken people outside the area to find jobs, thereby reducing the pool of available volunteer firefighters.
- Increased personal and family responsibilities limit the number of individuals available for the volunteer fire service.
In addition to these risks and benefits, a number of recommendations were made to the elected officials and members of the individual departments on the implementation of this new department. For a number of months, each department and municipality diligently implemented the recommendations provided in the report and on August 1, 2009, the Western Berks Fire Department was placed in service as Company 18.