Jerry Ozog was in town sounding the fire alarm… figuratively speaking!
He is the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute. He has been traveling the state conducting seminars to municipal and emergency leaders.
“In Pennsylvania, there’s a critical issue with volunteer fire and emergency medical services (EMS) where there’s a decrease in volunteerism, but the cost of operations is going higher and higher. I have been promoting cooperation with municipalities and volunteer fire departments and EMS organizations.”
Ozog said part of the problem is the tension that exists between local government leaders and the volunteer organization.
“We bring the community together to talk about what the future is, because Harrisburg’s not going to solve the problem. What’s going to solve the problem is local communities working together, working with your counties, and working with state government.”
Ozog isn’t just a talker – he is a deputy chief in his local volunteer fire department. He has personally seen the problems local departments are having getting enough volunteers.
“Communities where you’re having difficulty getting volunteers also are communities that are getting older, demographics are changing; however, the demand for services are going to continue. So, departments have to become creative like working together on different projects, looking at some different regionalization concepts, defining what they actually need to keep their organization going.”
In working together, Ozog said the main thing is to define expectations of each group.
“Sit down at the table and have the volunteer fire department define what their expectations are from local government. And then local government defining what their expectations are of the fire department. And with that, the example of expectations are, what does the department need in the future? Let’s be transparent about fund-raising and funding. What does the municipality require. Does the municipality require them to turn-over and find out what financial issues they have in the books? It’s defining those clear expectations, that everything is transparent. That they’re both in it together. They’re not separate when it comes to public safety. This is critical for the public safety of all Pennsylvanians is to have effective fire and emergency medical service response
Manor Township Fire Chief Chad Evans said he heard Ozog loud and clear.
“We’ve just got to work together,” Evans said. “We are here for one thing and one thing only, and that is to protect the citizens of whatever municipality that you live in.
Carol Fenyes is on the other side of the table. She is president of Ford City Borough Council and found the information “enlightening”.
“The importance of communication between the volunteer fire department and the borough or township (is necessary). I took lots of notes and I’m going to get the presentation and come up with a plan,” Fenyes said.
Ozog said funding will become a critical issue in the future.
“The easiest way to fund organizations is through local tax dollars,” he said. “And the conflict occurs because municipalities don’t want to raise taxes. Over the years, volunteers have done such a great job at fund-raising but what’s happening is people are so busy now, there’s multiple fund-raisers going on, the cost of operations is going up and the income is coming down. The only way to fix that is for some municipal tax support of a department. We’re not saying it should be 100%, but also volunteer departments have to become more efficient.”
Earl “Buzz” Kline serves as fire chief of Kittanning Hose Company #4, and also is Kittanning Borough’s fire marshal. Each of the three Kittanning fire departments receive $10,000 from the Borough each year.
“We have to get Council more involved from the aspects of the overall recognition of the fire department, what the fire departments do for the community,” Kline said. “We need to let Council know the benefits Kittanning Borough receives from the fire department, and what we receive from the Borough.”
Ozog said fire departments must decide if regionalization or combining departments make better economic sense. He said pride has stood in the way of doing it until the organizations literally falls apart.
“It’s hard because the volunteers put many years dedicated to the organization. But regionalization has been happening across Pennsylvania, where there are several organizations that come together administratively. They don’t close fire stations down, but they have a Board of Directors over top of them where they have one president, one secretary, one treasurer, one chief and then there’s multiple fire stations underneath. There’s one fire department that I know that now serves 14 separate municipalities because they’ve joined together. By pulling resources that are currently there, they’re able to survive as a volunteer department. But, pride and tradition gets in the way of doing that. If you don’t want to see a department go completely away, there are better ways of doing things to be more efficient.”
Terry Bish works for the Sheriff’s Department and at Manor Township as a part-time officer. He felt it is important for the police department and fire department to also have an understanding of how to work together more efficiently.
“The one thing I’m going to take away from this, is when the firemen go out for wrecks and things that they are called out by the police, they put a lot of time in that, and a lot of money into it. Do the police need them as much as we call them out? These are things to think about and talk it over with the Chief,” Bish said.
Ozog is expected to return for another session in the fall. Anyone wishing to get information about the next seminar may contact the Manor Township supervisors at 724-763-9215.