NEWTOWN TOWNSHIP >> In his 2017 proposed general fund operating budget, township manager Kurt Ferguson is recommending that the township end its long-time fire services agreement with the all-volunteer Newtown Fire Association (NFA).
Instead he advocates that the township create its own volunteer force to supplement the township’s paid Emergency Services Department which already operates on a part-time schedule during the week.
At the Oct. 17 supervisors’ work session, Ferguson outlined the proposed 2017 operating budget for the fiscal year beginning Jan. 1 and it calls for severing the alliance with the NFA at the end of the next calendar year.
“We have one year remaining in our agreement with the Newtown Fire Association and I’m recommending that it not be renewed,” Ferguson stated in his prepared remarks to the supervisors which lasted about a half-hour.
Currently, the township has earmarked $170,000 in the 2016 general fund operating budget for the NFA and the same amount is proposed for the next fiscal year ending Dec. 31, 2017.
But then, according to the township manager, all financial ties would be cut after the two-year agreement expires.
“I’m recommending that the township in 2017 begin creating and building its own volunteer fire company that would work in conjunction with our full-time Emergency Services Department beginning in 2018,” Ferguson proposed.
“I believe that this fundamental change is a better model for the township moving forward,” he continued. “This move makes sense from the perspective of volunteer coordination, regional cooperation, institutional partnerships and economic realities.”
The township’s own Emergency Services Department operates with a paid staff and chief, covering the township 60 hours a week, Mondays through Fridays from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m.
The NFA, which is based in the Newtown Borough, responds to calls in the township all other times, including overnights and weekends.
The township's Emergency Services Department has eight paid full-time firefighters under the command of Chief Glenn Forsyth, who the supervisors appointed in June 2012.
The paid emergency department was formed several years ago to provide manpower when most of the members of the Newtown Fire Association were at their regular jobs.
As part of Ferguson’s recommended changes, the township would hire a salaried deputy fire chief to help build the volunteer force which would cover the township for 108 hours when the paid firefighters are off.
Under the scenario, the new deputy chief would be tasked with fostering cooperation with regional all-volunteer fire departments, especially those in Wrightstown and Upper Makefield townships.
Interestingly, the NFA was not mentioned in that planned regional partnership.
According to Ferguson, a regional approach must be taken to help ensure adequate coverage and public safety in times when it’s harder for local fire departments to attract volunteers and raising funds to buy equipment.
“The days of every volunteer company having their own ladder and every other piece of equipment is becoming increasingly difficult,” he explained. “A regional focus on what piece of equipment is needed and when will allow all participating department to share in those costs and avoid expensive equipment redundancies.”
Ferguson also proposes building a 2,000 square-foot addition to the township’s public works’ building to house the planned volunteer firefighters.
He also is recommending that a used fire engine be purchased out of general fund revenues, as well as the purchase of gear needed to properly equip 15 new volunteer firefighters.
According to Ferguson, the $170,000 that the township saves in funding the Newtown Fire Association would be earmarked for the new deputy chief’s salary, as well as for equipment.
In addition, he said that the township would keep all of the $130,000 in state funds, which currently is dispersed to the non-profit Newtown Volunteer Firefighters' Relief Association, which benefits volunteer NFA firefighters and their families in case of death or serious injury.
Instead that money would be used to help pay for insurance, equipment and other items that a Newtown Township volunteer force would need.
“We believe that this additional $300,000 will allow the township to assume all fire related duties and oversights necessary to protect the township,” Ferguson told the supervisors.
As part of the township manager’s plan, an apprenticeship program would be offered through Bucks County Community College for fire safety students to qualify for credits by volunteering with Newtown Township.
“The students would get field training and it would also provide coverage to the volunteer component of our fire operations during the needed hours,” he said.
After the meeting, Ferguson admitted that he had not provided Newtown Fire Association with advance notice of his recommendation that the township severe funding and form its own volunteer force. As a result, no one from the NFA was in attendance at the sparsely-attended budget presentation.
During the budget presentation, none of the five supervisors who attended questioned or commented on the township manager’s proposal, which could be a sign that the floated plan might not come to fruition, or be dramatically altered.
After the meeting, several supervisors said that they are taking the matter under advisement, and that it would be reviewed in the upcoming budget discussions before a final general fund operating package is passed in December.
Chairman Kyle Davis told BucksLocalNews.com that fire service costs are becoming more expensive for municipalities, and that every effort should be made “to explore whether to regionalize it.
“Keeping safety and preserving safety is our number one priority,” he maintained.
When asked whether the township severing ties with the Newtown Fire Association would cause them financial hardship or possible disbandment, Davis said, “They still have [Newtown] Borough to service, so they have to figure out how they’re going to do that.”
For several years the relationship between the township and NFA had been chilly at best.
In 2011, the supervisors hired the Matrix Consulting Group which made a number of recommendations, including creating a township fire chief’s position, to oversee the paid township staff, as well as the borough’s volunteer association when it responded to calls in Newtown Township.
That report concluded that two fire companies under separate commands needed to be more unified for both efficiency and public safety.
Earlier this year when the township supervisors approved a new two-year pact with the fire association, the seven-page agreement specifically spelled out who is charge when the NFA answers calls in the township, as well as mandates response times.
If the township’s chief and paid emergency personnel are on duty when assisted by fire association crews, township personnel will be in charge of the volunteer firefighters.
Meanwhile, when the township emergency personnel are off-duty the NFA’s own command structure oversees all fire calls answered in the township.
If the volunteer department is on another call outside of the Newtown area, it must guarantee that the township is covered by a neighboring fire department when the township’s own paid force is off duty.