Discussion about fire and EMS dominates council meeting in Kennett Square
● By Steven Hoffman
How fire and EMS services are provided—and paid for—by Kennett Square Borough and five surrounding townships were major topics of discussion at the Sept. 4 council meeting in Kennett Square.
Even before council member Ethan Cramer outlined some of the findings of the work that has been undertaken by the Kennett Regional Fire and EMS Commission, a large contingent of Kennett Fire Company members made it clear that they have serious concerns about the possibility of a drastic change to how EMS services are provided to the approximately 30,000 residents who live in Kennett Square Borough, Kennett Township, East Marlborough Township, Newlin Township, Pennsbury Township, and Pocopson Township. In 2017, those six municipalities agreed to form a commission to look at how fire and EMS services are provided and paid for in the region, with the simultaneous goals of optimizing services for residents while also identifying the most efficient way to pay for those services.
Three fire companies—the Kennett Fire Company, the Longwood Fire Company, and the Po-Mar-Lin Fire Company—provide fire protection to the area, while two ambulance divisions—Kennett and Longwood—handle the EMS services. The six municipalities share the responsibility to fund the three fire companies and two ambulance divisions, and the Kennett Regional Fire and EMS Commission was charged with creating a multi-municipal approach to analyze the area's needs and to develop a strategy on how to meet those needs.
Cramer serves on the Kennett Regional Fire and EMS Commission for Kennett Square Borough. He outlined some of the issues that the commission has been working toward finding solutions for, and he also explained to council that formulating a plan for EMS services became a priority because fire company officials indicated that the uncertainty about the ambulance divisions creates numerous problems.
“EMS is the big question,” Cramer said, explaining that the Commission held more than a dozen meetings throughout this year to discuss activities and decisions related to EMS services in the region.
Having two ambulance divisions serve the region instead of one creates some unavoidable duplication—there are administrative duties that are duplicated, for example, and the two ambulance divisions also frequently show up for the same emergency calls, which can create significant inefficiencies in operation.
In some respects, the issues that the Kennett Square area is facing mirror what is going on all across the state when it comes to fire and ambulance services. Demographics and lifestyle changes have resulted in fewer volunteers to staff fire companies and ambulance services. Municipalities are seeing their costs increase for fire and ambulance services as a consequence. Billing for ambulance services when an ambulance shows up at a person's home can also be complicated.
Cramer explained that in a service area that has approximately 30,000 residents, the call volume usually hovers at around 3,000 calls annually—which simply isn’t enough to be divided efficiently and cost-effectively between two different ambulance divisions.
One of the functions that the Kennett Regional Fire and EMS Commission has performed is looking at the annual budgets and disbursing funds to the respective fire and ambulance companies based on their prior level of funding and projected operational needs.
While the costs of providing the services are an important consideration for local officials, it is hardly the only one—ensuring that residents continue to receive the fire and EMS services that they need and expect is very important. As Cramer explained, “All the costs are weighed against the fact that we're talking about life-and-death situations.”
Identifying ways to optimize services and finding more effective ways to allocate the available resources could result in improved care for citizens and less of a burden for taxpayers. But a move toward the regionalization of ambulance services would be complicated—and long-standing territorial issues between the two ambulance divisions certainly doesn’t make that effort any easier.
“Our region does not have a culture of collaboration,” Cramer noted.
Cramer explained that the Commission had hoped to develop a joint recommendation that could be reached between officials from the Longwood Fire Company and Kennett Fire Company. However, they could not reach such an agreement.
“We're now in a position where the commission is going to have to make a decision,” Cramer said.
He emphasized that the commission has not made any recommendations yet, and if there is a recommendation forthcoming, it would then be up to the elected officials in the respective municipalities to vote to implement any changes.
Cramer lauded the men and women who staff the local fire and ambulance companies for putting in so much work to serve the residents in the community, and he explained that any changes that might be forthcoming would be based on finding ways to improve fire and EMS services through efficiencies, and those changes have nothing to do with the quality of the current services.
Some of the activities and decisions that are still pending for the Kennett Regional Fire and EMS Commission to take a look at include the following: identifying workers’ compensation improvements; studying possible tax abatements for firefighters; exploring the creation of an administrator position; developing an equipment replacement plan; improving the recruitment and retention support; considering the career staffing positions at the Kennett Fire Company No. 1 and Po-Mar-Lin Fire Company; and exploring the possibility of a new Longwood firehouse. All of these initiatives, Cramer said, are currently on hold—so there was no progress to report on them.
Once the presentation was complete, Kennett Square Borough Council members briefly discussed some of the issues.
Several council members expressed concerns that borough residents would certainly have regarding ambulance protection if the change was made to go from two ambulance divisions to one. Would response times increase as a result?
Cramer explained that the specific plans of how a single ambulance service provider would be implemented would have to be worked out, but he emphasized that ambulances would be positioned in the area in such a way so as to ensure that response times don’t increase.
“Our duty is to implement the best possible system,” Cramer said.
Council member Jamie Mallon said that he wasn't sure about the idea that two ambulance services aren't needed in an area. He noted that Kennett Square Borough and Kennett Township, in particular, are growing population centers, and the presence of Longwood Gardens, where large numbers of people visit, also increases the area's needs.
“We need to have rapid responses to emergencies,” Mallon said.
Council member Peter Waterkotte said that he shared some of the same concerns about not having an ambulance division that is based right in Kennett Square Borough. He noted that the borough is a population center in the region, and more population growth is expected.
Kennett Square mayor Matthew Fetick expressed concerns that the commission might be wandering a little too deep into the weeds regarding how ambulance services are provided to the area. There are many areas, Fetick said, where the collaboration between the two ambulance divisions could be improved so that operations are more efficient.
He pointed out that when the commission asked each each of the two departments to come up with a plan on how one ambulance division could serve the entire region, it put the two departments in a position where they would be competing against each other. And officials from both companies had to approach the issue knowing that one company would be a winner if the commission favored the proposal, while the other company would be a loser. That method will not help boost collaboration, Fetick pointed out.
“I think that the commission jumped too fast when they were told that they need to address the issue,” the mayor explained.
Fetick also noted that the residents in the six municipalities weren't given an opportunity to share their opinions with the Kennett Regional Fire and EMS Commission regarding a potential change to one ambulance division.
“We don't even know what our constituents think at this point,” Fetick said.
Several of the members of the Kennett Fire Company and its ambulance division talked about the importance of maintaining an ambulance service in the borough.
Borough resident Leon Spencer, a former council president, mayor, and school board member, suggested that it might be a good idea if a community forum was held for the Kennett Regional Fire and EMS Commission to share some of its findings and to discuss options on how the commission might proceed with its work.