As recruitment numbers in volunteer fire departments dwindle, three Washington County municipalities have begun preliminary discussions about a potential fire district.
Canton Township filed a letter of intent with the state Department of Community and Economic Development to “sit down and discuss the potential of a fire district” with officials from South Strabane Township and the City of Washington, according to Canton Township Manager Stephanie Pettit.
“There have been conversations about it,” she said. “But we in no way have committed to it.”
South Strabane Township officials confirmed that “pre-preliminary” discussions have taken place among South Strabane, Canton and Washington. South Strabane Township manager Brandon Stanick said the discussions have mostly involved “gathering information” to see if there is any interest in forming “enhanced partnerships.”
“We’re looking to form partnerships and create, more or less, teamwork in providing that service,” he said. “We’re aware of interest in the area. We’ve floated the idea unofficially. Whatever form that takes, nobody knows.”
Pettit said the DCED would be involved in the discussions and that the Canton Fire Department would also need to submit a letter of intent, since it is not “under the township’s umbrella.”
“The DCED doesn’t want to come to the table if no one is interested in doing it,” she said.
Neither South Strabane nor Washington have submitted a letter of intent with the DCED.
While Washington’s fire department is run solely by paid career firefighters, South Strabane relies on both career and volunteers, and Canton relies solely on volunteers. Both South Strabane and Canton have had problems recruiting new volunteer members.
In March, Canton Township supervisors approved a pay-per-call initiative for its volunteers. They now pay $12 per response to an emergency call for active members of the fire department. Pettit said that while the initiative hasn’t attracted new recruits, it has ensured more of the 29 active volunteers show up for calls.
“We have, on average, six or seven firefighters per call,” she said. “We were down to three sometimes. For a volunteer fire company to have an average of seven people to show up for a call is actually pretty good.”
Pettit said that in March, 183 volunteers responded to 25 calls. In May, 230 volunteers showed up for 29 calls, and in September, 282 people responded to 34 calls.
“It’s not a permanent fix, but it’s better than it has been,” she said. “It’s just a fix temporarily until we can figure out what we’re going to do to change what’s happening with volunteer fire service. Some of these guys are not going to be there forever. The people that are joining are a younger crew, but it’s not enough.”
Canton fire Chief Dave Gump said while more members are responding to calls, their call volume has gone up, and “it’s not really shown too much improvement for us.”
“The answer is a paycheck – that’s what it’s going to take,” Gump said.
Gump said regionalizing fire service would require great incentive, and that each department would have to “pull its own weight.”
“You have to raise taxes, and nobody wants to hear that,” he said. “But we’re fighting fires with four or five guys, and that’s not safe for anybody.”
South Strabane has also taken recent action to try to boost volunteer recruitment. On Oct. 23, the supervisors approved an ordinance that established a volunteer credit program that allows the active volunteers to receive a real estate tax cut of up to 20 percent of the township’s portion of their tax bill. They would also qualify for an earned income tax credit of up to $500. In order to meet the criteria for those tax credits, the volunteers would need to respond to a certain number of calls per quarter, as well as participate in fundraisers and training.