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Chester County Press

Kennett Township agrees to a new territorial fire coverage and response plan

04/21/2021 10:08AM ● By Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

By a 2-1 vote, the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors passed a motion at a special virtual meeting on April 15 that will provide more resources to the Kennett and Longwood fire companies, and will overhaul the method by which fire and rescue services will be administered in the township, beginning on May 3.

The motion had been adopted by the Kennett Fire and EMS Regional Commission on April 14, based on recommendations specified in its recently issued policy briefing analysis of how fire and rescue services are being conducted in the region.

During a 90-minute meeting, board Chairman Richard Leff and Supervisor Whitney Hoffman agreed to a motion that will:

·   Reassign primary firefighting responsibilities in Kennett Township to both fire companies in accordance with a new fire coverage and response plan that will divide the township and borough into four coverage regions:

1.  The Longwood Fire Company will provide fire and rescue service in the area east of Bayard Road, just north of Longwood Gardens and south to the Delaware state line.
2.  The Kennett Fire Company will provide exclusive fire and rescue service to the Kennett Borough.
3.  Both companies will share fire and rescue coverage for the area west of Bayard Road to the western edge of the township and south to the Delaware State Line; and
4.  Fire and rescue coverage of the southwestern corner of the township will be shared by the Longwood, Kennett and Hockessin fire companies.

In addition:

  • The Kennett Fire Company’s EMS operations will be “retired” in order to allow funding to be allocated to paid firefighters at the fire company.
  • The Kennett Regional Fire and EMS Commission will increase its annual funding to the Kennett Fire Company to include two paid firefighters and one paid supervisor to allow for weekday coverage from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., at an estimate of $254,720 per year.
  • The Commission will also increase its annual funding to the Longwood Fire Company to include one additional paid firefighter, at an estimate of $74,100.

Kennett Township Manager Eden Ratliff said that the plan enables the Kennett Fire Company to fulfill its greatest need – increasing its firefighting workforce – as well as locking the fire company in partnership with the Longwood Fire Company for wider coverage areas beyond their current fire and rescue coverage of the Kennett Borough and the western edge of the township.

“This (plan) builds out a dual dispatch program that extends the Kennett Fire Company’s reach even further, which provides better coverage by using both fire companies,” Ratliff said.

Many of the reasons that led to the reworking of the fire and rescue plan passage are contained in “An Analysis of Kennett Fire Company Fire & Rescue Response Performance,” that was issued on March 4, 2021 by the Kennett Fire and EMS Regional Commission. The report contains analyzed response performance data for 2020 that showed Kennett Fire Company had inadequate response times for a majority of their calls during evenings and weekends.

The findings of the analysis, reviewed with the Kennett Regional Fire and EMS Commission along with the township’s board, led to growing concern for public safety in Kennett Fire Company’s coverage areas -- the Kennett Square Borough and the western half of the township. The response rate of these responders, the analysis found, was impacted by several factors in 2020 including COVID-19 and structure issues within the department.

Kennett Fire Company’s newly-appointed Fire Chief Tom Brady said that while the company still needs to vote on the proposal at a meeting scheduled for April 27, “We feel the deal that the Commission and Kennett Township presented was very promising to the Kennett Fire Company, and the overall consensus from the company is very positive,” he said. 

A.J. McCarthy, fire chief at the Longwood Fire Company, called the proposal a win for both companies.

“It keeps everyone involved,” he said. “It accomplishes our regional objectives, and it’s going to give us new possibilities in being able to increase the efficiency of service not only to the township residents but in the region.”

Hoffman said that the agreement “has been a long time in coming.”

“I have spent a lot of time speaking with both companies from last October through February. I think it’s going to reduce response times, make sure that everybody is safe and enhance the service to the residents, which is the thing that is most important here. It’s great that the companies are coming together and looking for opportunities to work together.”

“When I was looking at this process, I was looking at it not only from the lens of Kennett Township, but from how the whole system functions,” Leff said. “This gives us the chance to look regionally at how fire and rescue services are delivered. It supports the fire companies in their efforts to recruit, train and retain volunteers as much as possible.”

Before casting his vote against the motion, Supervisor Scudder Stevens – just as he had done in previous recent meetings related to the coverage of fire and EMS in the township -- focused nearly all of his ire on Ratliff, Leff and Hoffman for their failure to “sit down with Kennett Fire and EMS administration and offer to address their shortcomings in a transactional and incremental way.” 

Stevens fires back against the plan

Over the course of the past few months, the refrain in Stevens’ comments in reference to negotiations that will change how the township’s fire and EMS services will be conducted in the near future have been both familiar and accusatory, likening the process to a power grab by the Longwood Fire Company to dominate the local fire and EMS landscape that is being orchestrated by McCarthy, underwritten by Ratliff and ushered into motion by Leff and Hoffman.

If the redesign of fire and rescue coverage territories primarily involving the Kennett and Longwood fire companies – as well as Stevens’ opposition -- sounded like a case of déjà vu, it is because it generously overlaps his opposition to a decision that was reached just a few short months ago by the same 2-1 vote.

At their Feb. 3 online meeting, Leff and Hoffman voted in favor of a motion made a month before that made Longwood Fire Company the township’s single-source provider of advanced life support (ALS) and basic life support (BLS) as part of a one-year agreement that began on March 1.

Under the guidelines of the agreement, Longwood, the current EMS provider for the eastern portion of the township, became the sole provider of EMS services in the area of the township that is west of Bayard Road.

In response to the decision, Stevens argued that the new agreement would lead to township residents spending $400 more per each EMS visit from Longwood than from Kennett; that because there would be little chance for a Longwood “chase car” to be stationed at the Kennett Fire Company, it would result in a longer response time for Longwood to answer EMS calls; that the township’s decision would result in Kennett Borough dropping out of the six-member Regional Fire and EMS Commission, which may lead to the dissolution of the Commission; that personnel, human relations or quality of service concerns were never raised by either Hoffman or Ratliff during negotiations with Kennett Fire and EMS, and that the six-month discussion that ultimately ended in the township’s agreement with Longwood has been about saving the township money, especially given that Kennett’s proposal is “less expensive and less disruptive.”  

Stevens’ comments on April 15 were in full step with his past remarks.

While he acknowledged the need for the Kennett Fire Company to bolster their operations, Stevens accused his colleagues of using the fire company’s shortcomings against them, “and then, in a systematic and intentional way, set out to dismantle and destroy the Kennett Fire Company.”

‘Bulldozing’ and ‘bullying’

The motion to “retire” all EMS operations at the Kennett Fire Company essentially added another log onto the fire of Stevens’ argument at the April 15 meeting.

“The township has bulldozed and bullied its way to this evening,” Stevens said. “It started out on the argument that the township would save money. This was a straw argument since the financial obligation was with the Commission and not the township. But we were assured that the township would save some $29,000 by eliminating Kennett EMS.

“When Kennett EMS counter-proposed a change that would keep them alive and save $38,000, to boot, the township then changed its argument and said that it was about services provided and human relations issues -- such as that Kennett EMS was cheaper than Longwood and must, therefore, be skimping on its obligations to its employees and volunteers.”

In the conversations he had with members of the Kennett Fire Company after the April 14 meeting, Stevens said that they acknowledged to him that “they were backed into the corner, and pushed over the barrel by these bullying tactics, but the administrators appear to be happy with the outcome,” he said.

Stevens accused Leff and Hoffman of entering into this plan “like lemmings, driven to hold a special meeting, tonight, to act on this proposal,” he said. “We could have done this next Wednesday at our regularly scheduled meeting [on April 21], or addressed it at the meeting after that, and still been within the limits imposed. For some reason this needed to be done tonight.

“As with all aspects of the fire and EMS question in Kennett Township, there seems to be a private agenda to lock this matter down, as soon as possible, [and] damn the consequences.”

McCarthy responds to Stevens

At the conclusion of Stevens’ comments, McCarthy replied directly to Stevens.

“We came to this together,” McCarthy said, referring to both fire companies. “We have had conversations about this plan and we’re both optimistic about trying to do this as a clean slate, so if anyone should be jumping up and down about this it should be you, and you’re not, and I am concerned with that.

“You spent many, many, many hours going at me during the Commission meetings about working with [the Kennett Fire Company], and right now we’re standing shoulder to shoulder telling you what is going to be beneficial for the both of us and what is going to be beneficial for the residents, and now it’s not acceptable, and I have a hard time with that.”

In his follow-up remarks to McCarthy, Stevens said his criticism of the plan was not directed at either fire company but to his colleagues at the township, and in fact called the collaboration between the two fire companies “very positive.”

“My comments were all directed to how my partners have treated Kennett Fire and EMS and the borough in this whole transaction, and that is a real problem for me,” he said. “I am sorry that I have been so vociferous about it, but I have really been upset about it. I believe our behavior has been unacceptable.

“I am very happy with it coming together. What I am not happy about is what it is doing – or may have done – to an organization that has been around for 150 years, with nothing but the highest honor bestowed upon it for their heroic work they have done for our community.”

Steve Melton, deputy fire chief of the Kennett Fire Company, said he had been asking for this regional approach to fire safety since the start of the Kennett Fire and EMS Regional Commission.

“I am ecstatic that this is taking place, and I look forward to making this whole community -- the township, the borough and the rest of the municipalities that are involved in this throughout southern Chester County – a much better place to live…if, and hopefully if, the Kennett Fire Company votes to do this,” he said.

Melton later assured Stevens that the collaboration between Kennett and Longwood fire companies will add another 150 years to the history of the Kennett Fire Company.

“[The plan] gives us the structure to continue, the structure to grow, and to do what we like doing best, which is helping people.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].