Oxford area officials discuss fire and ambulance funding
By Steven Hoffman
Elected officials from Oxford Borough and the townships of East Nottingham, Elk, Lower Oxford, Upper Oxford, and West Nottingham came together for a special public meeting to discuss a request for additional funding for Oxford Union Fire Company No. 1 and its ambulance division. The meeting took place on Nov. 12 at the Lower Oxford Township Building.
Union Fire Company No. 1 is seeking about $80,000 in additional funding for the ambulance division in response to an increase in demand for those services. This additional funding would be divided among the six municipalities in the coverage area. Most if not all of these municipalities are already having a difficult time balancing their budgets for 2016 without the additional costs.
During the presentation at the public meeting, eight members of the fire company and its ambulance division outlined some of the challenges that the fire company is facing, and why the additional funding is necessary as elected officials prepare to approve the annual contracts with the fire company for 2016.
Bob Prettyman, Sr., the chairman of the fire company board, talked about the increasing need that the Oxford area has for fire and ambulance service. Last year, there were 2,776 calls for fire and ambulance service. This year, with two months left to report, the total number of incidents is already more than 2,500. The fire company covers approximately 92 square miles of territory, while the ambulance service serves a coverage area of approximately 112 square miles.
Fire company officials said that the increase in the number of calls is making it necessary to boost the staffing of the ambulance division. There have been more than 2,100 ambulance calls so far in 2015, according to EMS Manager Nicholas Sawyers. He explained that of those, 1,699 were first calls—the ambulance was heading out with no other calls at that time. But on 361 occasions, it was a second call, which means that an ambulance was already out with another call and a second ambulance had to be dispatched. There were 48 times when two ambulances were out and a third call came in. If a call comes in and Oxford's ambulance division can't respond in a timely manner, the person who is experiencing an emergency, depending on the specific area, will have to wait for the arrival of an ambulance from Rising Sun, Avondale, West Grove, or one of the other surrounding fire companies. Oxford has a mutual-aid agreement with all the surrounding companies, but most of them rely on volunteers, which means that response times can be inconsistent. Fire company officials don't want to see the response times increase because, sometimes, a life is hanging in the balance.
Oxford Fire chief Bob Prettyman, Jr. said that the fire company has had a difficult time, especially in the last four or five years, finding a way to pay for everything that is necessary to meet the needs in the community. He said that as early as last year, fire company officials were telling local municipal officials that more funding might be necessary.
“We've been hinting to the townships that this would be coming,” Prettyman, Jr. said.
He explained that the funding that the fire company receives from the municipalities is used for fire apparatus, fuel and maintenance for the vehicles, as well as insurance. It is then up to the fire company to fund other operating expenses, like paying for the electric or the telephone service.
Costs to staff the ambulance division have been on the rise. Oxford's ambulance division provides basic life support, while Medic 94 provides advanced life support throughout southern Chester County. Oxford's ambulance division includes a staff of five full-time emergency responders, nineteen part-time emergency responders, and six active volunteers. Two decades ago, there might have been thirty volunteers actively responding to calls, but Oxford and other fire companies have seen a marked decrease in the number of people willing to volunteer.
The ambulance division charges a fixed amount to everyone who is picked up and transported by an ambulance, but they are unable to collect payment on 20 to 30 percent of those calls. Medicare coverage of ambulance fees leaves a lot to be desired as well, fire company officials said.
Fire company and ambulance officials described some other challenges that they are facing, most significantly a lack of volunteers from the community who are willing to answer fire and ambulance calls.
Chris Obenchain, the deputy fire chief for Oxford, said that there were approximately 300,000 volunteers who supported Pennsylvania's fire companies in the 1970s. That number has dwindled to between 50,000 and 60,000 today.
“This is not just an Oxford issue as far as the decline in the number of volunteers,” Obenchain explained.
There are a number of issues that contribute to the decline in the number of volunteers. Many more families have both parents working full-time jobs than 30 years ago. Additionally, the training that is necessary to become an active volunteer firefighter is much more daunting today. It used to be that only 40 hours of training would be necessary for a volunteer firefighter to enter a burning building. That has increased to about 240 hours of training simply to be able to go into a building to battle a blaze. Officials said that the time commitment necessary discourages volunteerism.
The lack of volunteers has hindered the fire company's fundraising efforts, too. At one time, fire company members volunteered their time to run the Oxford Carnival each year. The event would raise thousands of dollars to offset some of the costs, but the fire company simply didn't have enough volunteers to continue to put on the carnival. A weekly bingo fundraiser was halted because it no longer generated enough revenues to make it worth the effort for the volunteers that it took to run the event.
The fire company continues to do a mail campaign to collect donations from the community, but even this effort has fall short by several thousand dollars from previous years.
The fire company is now looking to the municipalities to provide more funding.
“We have gone above and beyond to use money from fundraising to provide services,” said Prettyman, Sr.
One point of contention between the elected officials and the fire company seemed to be the fact that each municipality would no longer have representation on a committee that evaluates the purchase of new fire trucks and ambulances.
East Nottingham Township supervisor Scott Blum said that he and other elected officials feel like they don't have any representation with the fire and ambulance service, which limits that the input that they have into the decisions that are being made.
There was also considerable discussion during the meeting about the replacement schedules for the fire trucks and ambulances, as well as the costs associated with purchasing new vehicles.
According to fire company officials, the fire trucks are replaced every 20 years, while the ambulances are replaced every seven years, on average. That replacement schedule is similar to those of neighboring fire companies, officials said.
The costs of fire apparatus have skyrocketed, so it often takes much more to purchase a new fire truck than it cost to purchase the one that is being replaced.
“Buying fire apparatus is not like buying anything else,” Obenchain said. Fire company officials noted that a new ladder truck built in 1989 would have cost about $325,000, whereas the truck with the same ladder height in 2014 would cost $938,000. The new trucks have safety features that weren't available in 1989, but the new truck would essentially be the same as the old one, it would just cost nearly three times as much.
While some of the municipalities had enough members to constitute a quorum, which would make it possible for them to take action as a board, this meeting was more about sharing ideas and getting some questions answered rather than taking votes on the additional funding that is being requested.
Eric Todd, the chairman of the West Nottingham Township Board of Supervisors, said that the fire company should prepare the annual budget earlier so that municipalities would have more time to prepare for the increases.
Prettyman, Jr. talked about the possibility of doing a three-year contract with the municipalities instead of a one-year contract, which could help municipalities as they budget for the fire and ambulance costs. Another idea, Prettyman, Jr. said, is to hold quarterly meetings that would include representatives from each municipality to keep them informed about fire company business.
Another potential change that could be considered is how each municipality calculates its share of overall costs. Prettyman, Jr. said that right now, each municipality's funding level is based on millage. There have been discussions about making a change so that the level of funding would be calculated by a formula that would include a municipality's population, call volume, and millage rate.
Several elected officials expressed their gratitude for the services that the fire company provides, including Blum, who said, “As a resident, I appreciate everything that those volunteers do down there.”
Fire company officials emphasized that they need help from the community to continue to provide the same level of fire and ambulance protection to the Oxford area. Residents who can afford to do so should make a donation during the annual fundraising campaign through the mail. Additionally, the fire company and ambulance division is always in need of volunteers who are willing to help out.
“The community needs to know that the fire company is still one hundred percent volunteer,” Prettyman, Jr. explained. “We want to provide the best service we can to residents. We are all residents here.”