The South Strabane Volunteer Fire Department is at a stalemate with township officials over the future of the department.
Last month, the fire department sent a letter to township residents criticizing the board of supervisors and township manager Brandon Stanick for not honoring an agreement to make quarterly payments to the department.
“For the year of 2020, payment was not received from the township until November of that year, 11 months delinquent. For the year 2021, no payments have been received as of the writing of this letter,” the letter reads.
In a second letter, dated Oct. 18, the department states it is owed $110,000, which accounts for 40% of its budget. The department operates independently of the township and funds the rest of its budget through donations and fundraising efforts.
Fire Chief Scott Reese said he was not involved in the drafting of the letters and declined comment. Cory Gaiser, acting fire company president, also declined to comment.
Stanick confirmed that the township has not issued any payments to the fire company this year.
The agreement, dated June 14, 2005, states that the township will make quarterly payments at the end of March, June, September and December, but it does not specify any dollar amount.
For the fire department, the agreement says it will provide fire protection services to the township, as well as a monthly report on fire calls.
According to Stanick, the township is not satisfied with the current service being provided by the fire department, and that the department has rebuffed efforts by the township to improve services.
“Their response to calls is inconsistent,” Stanick said. He said the department does not respond to all calls, and when it does, there is an insufficient number of people on scene.
South Strabane’s fire department consists of both volunteers and paid staff at two stations, one on East Maiden Street and the other at Oak Springs Road. There are currently nine paid firefighters, with another due to start working before the end of the year, according to Stanick.
However, Stanick said South Strabane is dealing with the same issue that many fire departments are dealing with – a decline in volunteers
“South Strabane Fire Department is no different. We only have 12 members, a challenge to providing effective and efficient services,” Stanick said.
Stanick said it is the goal of the township to not only improve the service provided by the department, but to provide 24/7 fire and EMS services.
The first letter sent by the fire department states the department’s career firefighters work Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., while the volunteers are responsible for covering the remaining 88 hours of the week.
The letter also criticizes the township for purchasing a fire truck earlier this year for $130,000. The department claims it was not made aware of the purchase and that it is an unnecessary expense, as the purchased truck is more than 20 years old.
“This used apparatus on its first trip to South Strabane Township suffered a blown tire on Interstate 79, causing the truck to veer into the median,” the letter reads.
Stanick said the truck was purchased to maintain current service levels, and move another step toward the department being available 24/7.
Last year, at a cost of $15,000, the township commissioned a study on how to improve fire service in the community, according to Stanick. Jerry Ozog, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute, drafted the study. The study began in August 2020, and the final report is dated December 2020.
“Members of the Volunteer Fire Department, Career Staff, Township Management, and Township Supervisors actively participated and should be congratulated for their honesty and desire to improve,” Ozog writes in the study’s introduction.
Once Ozog completed the study, however, the cooperation ended, Stanick said.
“We brought in a consultant to assist us with strategic planning with volunteers,” Stanick said. “At the end of that process, they rejected the findings of the consultant.”
The 49-page report lists 16 recommendations on how the township could reorganize the fire department, how it is operated and how to effectively recruit and retain volunteers.
“What this document lays out is a way for these entities to come together and form a new system, which the study refers to as the South Strabane Fire Rescue System,” Stanick said.
Under the proposal, the fire department would remain a combination of career firefighters and volunteers. It would be governed by an executive committee consisting of the volunteer president; volunteer treasurer; volunteer board member; township manager; township fire chief; the president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 5006; two township supervisors; and a citizen representative.
Under the executive committee would be four subcommittees to oversee facilities, apparatus and major equipment, professional standards, and operations.
Currently, the fire department is operated by a board of directors.
The fire rescue system and its organizational structure would be established via township ordinance, according to the study.
The fire department’s second letter to residents said the firefighters rejected the study due to “not having proper support and communication from the township.”
“The township board of supervisors and the township manager wished to hold all the power in the committee, which would leave the career staff fire fighters and the volunteer fire fighters without proper input into all segments of the fire fighting/rescue services,” the letter reads.
In its first letter to the community, it expressed concern the township is moving toward terminating its relationship with the volunteer department.
“The result will be increased taxes to cover the costs for the township to begin operating its own fire service. Not only will the township need to hire fire service staff, they will need to procure new fire apparatus and facilities to respond out of. This is an unnecessary and costly course of action to take,” the letter states.
In the followup letter, the department claims this would cost taxpayers as much as $3.5 million annually.
However, Stanick said that is not the township’s intention.
“That is contrary and inconsistent with what the board has communicated to (the fire department),” Stanick said.