Fire Funding Crisis for Berwyn, Paoli & Radnor Fire Companies. . . the ‘real’ story!

I am always appreciative when Community Matters readers send me local articles or links that I may have missed.  I received a great article today – the new edition of Main Line Today contains the article, ‘The Price of Rescue – Financial alarms have begun to sound at area fire and ambulance companies. What happens if the dollars dry up? (Can we afford to find out?).

The well-written article by Jim Waltzer highlights what many residents in Tredyffrin and other local municipalities have known for a while now, and what we have been hearing from our volunteer firefighters.  Our local fire companies are coming up against the money crunching of local township budgets and quickly facing a funding crisis within their organizations. Below are some of the highlights excerpted from of ‘The Price of Rescue’, click here for the complete article. Once again, on behalf of the Berwyn, Paoli and Radnor fire companies . . . please remember our volunteer firefighters (particularly during the holiday season) with a generous contribution. These men and women put their lives on the line every day for each of us!

“ . . . money is as critical as water to firefighting, an essential service built on a powerful volunteer tradition that, hereabouts, dates to Benjamin Franklin. And since cash flow is so uncertain in the current climate of economic tightening, fire companies are transmitting distress signals. A 5-percent reduction in Tredyffrin Township’s portion of fire-company funding triggered a strong response from the firefighting community late last year, though private contributions restored the shortfall. “[But] what happens next year—and the year after?” poses Matt Norris, chief of the Berwyn Fire Company, which fields about 2,000 ambulance and 1,000 fire calls a year.

Rip Tilden, the company’s president, believes the day is coming “when we won’t be able to fund emergency services in the ways we have.”

That day may not be circled on the calendar just yet, but the long-range trend isn’t promising. The growing public perception is that local governments fully fund fire companies, resulting in less-than-robust donations of late. Other culprits include the widening gap between ambulance billings and payment, greater demand for advanced life support, reduced insurance reimbursements, rising personnel costs, expanded training requirements, dwindling volunteerism, increased government regulation, and grant funding that’s been slashed. In short, revenue is flat—or reduced—in the face of rising costs and need for services.

Berwyn’s 13-year forecast spots trouble halfway through. “Based on what we know today, six to eight years out, we’ll be strapped financially,” says Tilden, who estimates that the company will break even this year per its operations budget of $1.4-$1.5 million.

Meanwhile, Berwyn’s capital expenditures have been significant this year. A peek behind the bay doors of the 100-year-old firehouse on Bridge Avenue just off Lancaster reveals $5 million worth of rolling stock that needs periodic replacement: A new $950,000 tower-ladder truck and a $100,000 ambulance will soon join the fleet, and the company continues to repay $300,000 in state loans for two fire trucks.

Construction of a new firehouse is a long-term capital project—one that will require a campaign to raise $7-$10 million. “We’ve done the architectural work,” says Tilden. “We’ll have to buy the real estate.”

The company applied much of its 2009 surplus of more than $300,000 toward the purchase of the two new vehicles. More than half the tab for the ladder truck was paid with Pennsylvania Relief Association funds. The rest is covered by additional state loans and a combined annual capital contribution of $140,000 from Tredyffrin and Easttown townships.

Tilden characterizes last year’s budget surplus as “not sustainable,” attributing the excess to belt-tightening in anticipation of the new vehicle purchases. Berwyn generates more than half its operating revenue from insurance payments for ambulance-related services, while the townships’ contributions account for about 20 percent and public fundraising 15 percent. The company receives $125,000 a year in rental fees from five mobile phone providers for the use of the tower on its property, and another $50,000 from grants and other rental income. Its principal expenses are salaries and benefits for paid personnel; other costs are associated with facility and vehicle maintenance, service delivery (e.g., disposable drugs), and day-to-day administration.

Nine full-time employees—including firefighter emergency medical technicians and paramedics—staff Berwyn, whose workforce is bolstered by 60 volunteers. In providing services, “there’s no line between paid staff and volunteers,” says Norris. . . .

Berwyn typically receives about a 20-percent response to its biannual fund drives, buttressed by a November turkey raffle (which raises about $10,000) and an April dinner at Berwyn United Methodist Church. Fundraisers and other efforts to plug budget gaps can place a burden on fire company personnel who may lack the aptitude. “[Firefighters] didn’t sign up to raise money,” says Norris.

In this economy, even small funding cuts seem ominous, which is why fire and EMS officials protested Tredyffrin’s 2010 budget, in which the township reduced its funding of its three fire companies—Paoli, Berwyn and Radnor—by about $20,000 combined. The 5-percent cut was part of a 15-percent budget reduction, says township supervisor Warren Kampf. A volunteer citizens board assisting the budget process had recommended deeper cuts for the three fire companies. Supervisors and residents subsequently raised more than enough money to make up the difference.

Tredyffrin has tripled its fire-company funding in the past six years, notes Kampf, who adds that “the future is going to include increased contributions” due to rising costs. “In the end,” he says, “fire protection is a critical part of living in our township.”

Tilden certainly shares that perspective. “Maintaining a high quality of [emergency] service has an impact on property values. If insurance company ratings [for a given locale] are high, homeowner’s insurance costs less,” he says. With the proliferation of smoke alarms and sprinkler systems, major fires in this day and age have decreased. But when one strikes, equipment and manpower must be tuned and trained. Every company has a timetable for replacing vehicles. “The average life of an ambulance is three years, because you want a decent trade and have to keep up on technology,” says Norris. And as safety regulations multiply, so do costs. Likewise, service delivery costs are rising, especially for EMS and stepped-up use of paramedics (to provide advanced life support), a trend that Tilden attributes to an aging population and a more cautious approach by county dispatch. Expanding ALS has a direct effect on the bottom line, as companies that offer the service in-house (e.g., Berwyn) must add staff, and those that contract for it absorb a substantial difference between their cost and reimbursement.

. . . So while they all fight fires, Berwyn and Malvern provide in-house basic life support and ALS, while Paoli, Radnor and East Whiteland offer BLS only, and Valley Forge fire only. Some townships—like Radnor and Lower Merion—pay most of the purchase cost of new vehicles, while others pay for a relatively small portion through capital allocations. So the percentages of the budget contributed by local and state government, EMS/ambulance revenue, and public donations may vary wildly. It’s a far cry from the notion that government pays for everything. . . .

. . . . The Paoli Fire Company has six full-time employees (four firefighter/EMTs, two administrative), six part-time paid staffers, and 45 volunteers who mostly fight fires and provide EMS. It makes about 2,000 calls a year and expects to break even in 2010, says business manager Dan Green. He anticipates a $10,000 increase in net income next year—one that may be more than offset by a projected 15-percent bump in medical insurance premiums and additional higher costs.

Beyond 2011, the outlook is murky. Though Paoli does take advantage of 2-percent state loans to buy new vehicles—and Chester County money at a rate that’s a few points higher to help finance site renovations—its funding is always in a state of flux. “We’re teetering on a delicate balance of these revenues,” says John DiBuonaventuro, a Paoli firefighter/EMT and a Tredyffrin Township supervisor.

“These revenues” come from ambulance/EMS reimbursements, local government funding (aside from Tredyffrin and Easttown, Paoli receives a smaller contribution from Willistown), the state’s insurance relief program, and public donations. The amounts and proportions vary year to year. DiBuonaventuro opposed Tredyffrin’s funding cut for Paoli, Berwyn and Radnor last year. “Few politicians have the perspective of responder or victim,” he says. “New residents think their taxes pay for these services.” If volunteer levels continue to fall, says DiBuonaventuro, taxes will pay for firefighting and EMS—additional taxes, that is. Meanwhile, Green emphasizes that the 25-percent response to Paoli’s annual fund drive keeps the company rolling.

Money to the rescue.
How to Help Even if you don’t like hot places and high vantage points, you can help your local fire company level the playing field. The simplest and most effective way is to respond to annual fund drives. This is not, after all, a direct-mail campaign pitching the latest rejuvenating skin cream. Toss the mailer aside now, and one day in the not-too-distant future, it may well come in the form of a fee —with a higher dollar figure. “People can also help by joining the fire company,” says Berwyn chief Matt Norris. While battling blazes and providing EMS require rigorous skills and stoutheartedness, almost all firehouses welcome additional help with administrative and fundraising tasks.

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24 Comments

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  1. Just a question – I was perusing the 2011 budget and there is no “salary” line item for the Emergency Services portion of the budget. I was wondering was the total compensation was for an emergency serviceman.

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  2. Here is a Breakdown of the Tredyffrin & Easttown budgets for Berwyn & Paoli Fire Companies. I think it will give you a better understanding of the township budgets and what township contributions go towards.
    Tredyffrin: http://www.berwynfireco.org/apps/public/news/newsView.cfm?News_ID=34
    Easttown: http://www.berwynfireco.org/apps/public/news/newsView.cfm?News_ID=66

    As far as your question about salaries, the Township does not directly pay salaries of employees of the fire companies. The fire companies receive general contributions from the townships. Fire Companies are staffed largely by volunteers who do not receive compensation (obviously); Paoli, Berwyn & Radnor Fire Companies each have some full-time career staff who receive competitive salaries based on their job description (firefighter/EMT, Firefighter/Paramedic, etc) and their longevity.

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  3. Thanks to Mike for including these links. It seems pretty clear to me from this article that once again, PA just has a very complicated (and antiquated) way of funding emergency services. I sheepishly confess that one of my previous bosses in the professional world took on the job of restoring the Plymouth Ambulance (on the verge of bankruptcy when he took over) to fiscal health. He totally ran it as a business (and was rarely around our offices because of it). In the time I worked for him, he lived a lavish lifestyle. He’s in Graterford Prison now because not only did he turn the ambulance around, he somehow managed to use the revenue he generated to supplement his own lifestyle.
    Why this story? Because somehow there has to be a way to provide these services and send a bill. Send the bill to the user, the township, the insurance companies. Why is the township “contributing” when clearly these are necessary services?
    I’m pondering, not deciding. But the article makes it sound like Paoli has a better income stream. Are they better at fundraising, or have a higher insurance reimbursement, or what?

    There should be a cost of this operation, and the users and community should pay it. How we get to that, I don’t know….but if Harvey could take $2M+ and only get caught because he kept great records (because there was no drop in services), then I have to believe there is some way to restore fiscal sanity to the process. Firefighters and EMTs should not have to raise money — nor should a community “decide” how much to contribute.

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    Andrea Reply:

    PS — in closing, I resigned from that auspicious job after Eyewitness News had a microphone in my face asking what I knew and when I knew it….lesson learned. When it comes to money, there should be no “grey” area — revenues and expenditures should not be privately managed by beneficient volunteers — trust but verify. Does anyone have a thought on this? This is NOT meant to be about our own services, but this is a very expensive service. The costs associated with equipment can be enormous. Who/how is the decision made to upgrade/improve and acquire?

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    Anon. Reply:

    Paoli Fire Company does not provide Advanced Life Support services. The call volumes and FTEs of Berwyn Fire Co. and Radnor Fire Co. are significantly higher, which result in greater operating costs (fuel, supplies, etc.).

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  4. I think I misunderstood the article? It says the 25% response to the Fund Drive for Paoli….I’m asking if that is higher than the other two, and how does the drive differ?

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  5. Berwyn Fire Company sends 2 residential fund drives out in a year. about 25% return is seen from each drive. About 30% of the residents donate to at least one. However, Berwyn also does a Business fund drive to local businesses and only receives about 5% return. Or in other words, 70% of residents do not donate at all. 95% of businesses do not donate at all.

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  6. I don’t think we should drop this discussion on this site….there was a great article in Time sometime in the fall about a house burning down to the ground while firefighters watched….because the community had gone to a “fee” to belong to the fire protection program. The burning house had not paid so they did not get services. It was a great article, as even the family who lost the house agreed it was their bad.

    The process apparently reached that stage when the local community could not financially support fire protection so they turned to another local community (I think?) Anyway, the article went on to explain that fire protection is not a legal right — simply a community service. Citizens in the earliest days were part of a network that mutually supported each other, and cities developed fire programs because of the population density where they could not afford to rely on the good will of neighbors. The idea of a volunteer fire brigade was about everyone pitching in — those that didn’t participate presumably contributed funds.

    SO — perhaps all the legal minds and well connected people politically can educate us on what the “obligation” is to provide fire protection. Does the HRC require it? Do we have these fire companies simply because we want them….if I call 911 with a fire, is there a legal obligation for the volunteer fire company to come to my aid?

    In other words — whose responsibility is this? If the townships in PA “choose” who to provide the protection, and they too are simply donors, then the power shifts in my opinion and the fire companies need to identify territories and costs and send bills.

    But rather than speculating == can someone educate us on all of this? I really don’t know — but I do know that good will has a cost in today’s overwhelmed community…and it should. And it should not be borne by only 30 percent of residents. Whether it’s called a fire fee or a fire tax….it’s time.

    Same applies to EMS but one question at a time? Thanks.

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  7. Townships in PA are required to designate the Fire, Basic Life Support and Advanced Life Support Providers annually. This is a formal event because the township is required to provide Fire and EMS services to it’s community. Unfortunately, the commonwealth does not dictate a financial responsibility to this requirement. So unless there is a ‘fire tax’ and the millage collected must go to the fire/ems service, then the dollar value a township spends on fire and EMS service is completely arbitrary.

    Benefits of a fire tax? Tax $ must go towards fire companies. No arbitrary budget line items. 100% must pay taxes, no one HAS to donate (and as was stated a few posts above, 70% don’t)

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  8. If townships are required by law to provide Fire and EMS services, then it seems they should likewise contract to provide those services, not “contribute” to them. We need to change the dialogue –force a paradigm shift (Think of a Paradigm Shift as a change from one way of thinking to another. It’s a revolution, a transformation, a sort of metamorphosis. It just does not happen, but rather it is driven by agents of change.)

    Can some of the law folks on this site speak to how the obligation (if there is one) somehow because a donation to the cost? Fee, tax or whatever — the townships should be paying for the services, not helping to defray the costs. Or the services should be billing the citizens and the township FOR the services.

    Thoughts? Insight? How can we be agents of change and fix this stuff?

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  9. I would imagine that the only way to see change is to gather in large numbers, with appropriate information and demand a shift in priorities of the township budget. This can be done without ‘raising taxes.’ However, if they will not reduce funding to parks/libraries and other luxury services, then taxes will need to be raised.

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  10. Or a fee imposed, which I believe is a more legitimate avenue, as the value of the house doesn’t necessarily add to the burden of the obligation — or does it? Is a head tax legal?

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  11. It’s interesting how the Townships are required to ensure fire protection and EMS and contribute very little. Yet they are not required to provide law enforcement (Commonwealth’s responsibility) and pay massive amounts for it. Not saying that the PD is not needed, just an interesting note about what they do and don’t pay for.

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  12. So how do we go about correcting that? As a resident and someone who donates, I do NOT want another year in this down economy to have emergency services dependent on generosity. I think the agencies should put together their “bill” — a request for funding — and the townships should review their requests and accept them or modify them through negotiations, but shoudl PAY the bill. How would it be if the township needed to fundraise to pay the police?

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  13. Anon80
    I agree. Does anyone on this site have any knowledge or suggestion about how to pursue this? What is the history/ I have not lived here that long but I have heard every year about the “fire funding” crisis….yet we proudly claim no tax increases. WHY? Fund the emergency services — budget for it.

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  14. The fire companies do present budget requests. This year’s request was to not have a reduction and at least return to the 2009 level of funding (pre-reduction level). To ask for anything more, would unfortunately be considered a joke by some of the supervisors.

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    Anon80 Reply:

    That’s where the paradigm shift is required….what possible leverage do the BOS’s have if the Fire Services said they could not provide the service in certain communities? Taxpayers would have to step up and insist…..and if the state says it is a local obligation…..how could the BOS of any township say “too bad.”

    http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2025342,00.html

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  15. Found this online:

    You were only gone for a few minutes. You went to pick up your youngest daughter and her friend at the dance academy following their after school lessons. You’d left your oldest—she’s 13 going on 20—at home alone before while you made such quick pickups…only you’ve never come home to find your house on fire.
    What happened? Where’s my daughter? Where’s the fire department? Those questions and more run through your head in seconds. Finally, after what seems like an eternity you see her in the arms of your best friend who lives three doors down the street. One question answered. But where’s the fire department…
    Do you know what level of fire protection exists for your community? Do volunteers from the community staff the fire trucks? Or is the fire station staffed with salaried firefighters from the city or town or county? Who pays for the equipment and training so that these brave men and women—be they paid or volunteer—have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to do their job. Can those men and women do that job safely, effectively, and efficiently so that they can go home to their families after the work is done?
    These are questions you and your neighbors should find the answers to before you have a fire or a heart attack or a child stuck in an abandoned well because it’s going to be firefighters who come to your assistance. The law enforcement agency in your town—be it the police department or sheriff’s office—will have someone there to be sure, but they won’t be there to solve the problem. For that you’ll need an America’s Professional Problem Solver, a firefighter. (Since September 11, 2001 it’s become fashionable to refer to firefighters as America’s First Reponders so that we are more recognized for the role we play in our community. For me that doesn’t do it. Responders show up: firefighters solve the problem.)
    But before you need them, you need to make sure that they will be there and that they have the tools and knowledge to do the job. Money’s tight everywhere and everyone is feeling the pinch. I can tell you that volunteer fire departments have always had to deal with “tight money” and times are even tougher for them with diesel fuel selling for $3 and more a gallon in much of the country. Same is true for fire departments that have salaried firefighters and are funded by tax dollars. We all have to make decisions about our money and prioritize our spending.

    So, how important is it to you for the fire department to show up at your fire?

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  16. Fire Tax vs Fire Fee. Interesting discussion could be held on this. Who is paying? Per resident? Per home? What about large apartment buildings with people who rent? Dollar value of the property may or may not be relevant. Often times high value = higher occupancy or higher risk.

    What about businesses? There are some huge businesses/buildings that generate high population during the day. Increased traffic and therefore accidents.

    Paoli and Berwyn Fire departments serve both Tredyffrin and Easttown. Would there be a way to combine the effects of tax/fee so it is equal to all who receive the services. Should a fee get paid by Tredyffrin residents and not Easttown when Easttown would receive the same service?

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  17. So little interest in this topic? Is it because it r equires thinking and problem solving — and not just shots at the status quo? This is a problem in search of a solution — and fundraising is not it. I want a service that is well funded and paid for….either by billing for services and collecting those bills, or by including it in the cost of living here (and not a token cost — if I can pay $225 for a sewer fee, I can certainly pay some amount for ems/fire protection fee)

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  18. Just as Radnor’s police department tried charging motorists for police response to a car accident , fire companies all over the country are now charging for response to fires – $500 for response to a car fire in NYC, more if EMS service is involved, and much more for responding to a house fire. Fire companies are forced to do this to close budget gaps.

    The recent news story about a family whose home burned down while local fire personnel watched shocked many people. It happened because the homeowner had forgotten to pay his annual $75 fire fee. The man offered to pay the fee on the spot, but the fire company still refused to put out the fire.

    I know this could not happen in our community, but the possibility of hefty fees for fire/ ems response doesn’t seem farfetched if future state funding is reduced. Fundraising is an uncertain and time-consuming way to close the funding gap.

    I strongly support the institution of a dedicated or separate fire tax in Tredyffrin. No longer should any sitting group of supervisors have the power to allocate the taxpayers’ portion of Paoli, Berwyn and Radnor Fire Companies’ operating funds – as they see fit.
    Likewise, taxpayers’ contributions to the fire companies’ capital funds to purchase fire/ ems vehicles and equipment should not be a matter of yearly negotiation by supervisors who may have ideologically based objections to taxpayer support for fire companies.

    No one wants to pay more in taxes. No one. But reasonable people agree that their taxes should cover essential services. And nothing is more essential than fire/ EMS protection. It is mandated by the state, as Bill L pointed out, while police protection is not.

    We’re fortunate to have th best of both, and we should fight to keep it that way.

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  19. would all communities, such as Radnor adopt an equal tax to support Radnor EMS/fire which serves just as Berwyn would respond to an emergency in Radnor? Easttown?

    Who would determine the tax amount, or would it be a fee? Is that subject to change at the whim of a board of supervisors? Or would a new board be put in place..(more government) to oversee the fire departments… Just asking.Maybe it is a good idea to have an itemized fire “tax”. How would it work.

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  20. Paying a fire tax/fee is like insurance — and I very strongly hope that there is a way to get this done regionally. Does anyone on this site have any advice on how to put together a coalition to help create a regional solution? I don’t want generosity to define the scope of our fire companies compentencies. Police are part of the tax base….I believe fire and ambulance should (in this economic world especially) should be part of a community cost —
    So how do we do more than talk about it? Are the fire companies able to work for a joint solution or do they prefer to operate separately? 501 school districts in PA makes working between schools almost non-existent – even competitive. Are fire companies similar (they do come together for major episodes — shouldn’t their funding somehow account for cooperation?)

    I’m asking. And I’m willing to do whatever research/work it would take to advance solutions. I’m sure many people would. Not looking for a political solution — those are too temporary. We need a community solution. Thoughts?

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  21. One quick note about the fire company billing for services as they respond to a call as was mentioned above.

    Fire Companies receive State funding called Volunteer Relief money. This money is handled by relief associations at each fire house. The money has very strict restrictions for use and is audited by the state for its use. The relief association is funded by the Foreign Fire Insurance Tax.. The tax is paid by fire insurance companies which do business in Pennsylvania but are not domiciled here.

    In our area, this funding is fairly high due to the equations the state uses for distribution (high value/high population area). Without it the fire companies would be in a completely different financial condition. Fortunately over the last decade, the state has broadened the approved items that may be purchased with the money. Mainly, vehicles and apparatus.

    So why is this important to conversation of billing for services? Relief money may not be spent on any component of a fire/ems company that generates revenue. The most relevant example is EMS service billing. At Berwyn and most other companies, we bill for EMS services. (it represents about 50% of our revenue) But because of this, we can not spend any of the relief funds on EMS, EMS Providers, Ambulance purchases or anything that will go on an ambulance. It is a total freeze of that relief money, because the ambulance generates revenue.

    IF the fire company were to ‘bill’ for fire services, the fire company would lose the ability to receive Relief funding.

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