Building a Staffing Framework for the Future
The Neshannock Township Fire Company is staffed entirely by volunteers who respond to many types of emergencies. Our dedicated volunteers also participate in many hours of training and provide valuable safety education programs to the public. These duties are undertaken in addition to each member’s employment and family obligations. Though they do not draw their primary income as career firefighters, our volunteers complete the same training and mitigate emergencies using the same tactics as career firefighters. I continue to be impressed with the services that our volunteers provide for the community and I’m thankful to all of them for their efforts.
Sadly, though, the rate of volunteerism has been declining steadily nationwide for the past two decades. An early recognition of this trend prompted our fire company leadership to collaborate with the Neshannock Township Board of Supervisors to develop a creative program to make maximum use of a shrinking pool of volunteers to provide career-level service to our community. This collaborative effort involved several months of research that examined many other types of programs around the country.
In 2008, we launched a Volunteer Staffing program wherein volunteers take turns living at the fire station so they are ready to respond immediately to emergency calls. Participants in this program are from inside and outside of Neshannock Township. Each participant receives a modest reward stipend for their commitment each year. We are proud to say that this program continues to be successful and cost-effective. For less than the cost of salary and benefits of a single full-time career firefighter, our Volunteer Staffing program has been successful at providing career-level response during evenings, weekends, and holidays (the times that most volunteers are available).
Despite the successes of the Volunteer Staffing Program, we are observing a continued decline in volunteer availability during weekday daylight hours – the times when volunteers are otherwise occupied by their primary employment. We have, once again, convened a planning committee that includes our elected officials to consider solutions to the issue of daylight responder availability.
But it’s not all bad news. There is also an exciting factor that has stimulated our long-term planning: township growth. In the last two years alone, the assessed market value of Neshannock Township’s real estate grew by nearly $9 million to a total value of more than $711 million in 2019; making it the highest market value of any municipality in Lawrence County.
We believe strongly in helping our township to grow in value by limiting loss due to fires and emergencies. This is achieved through continuous fire prevention and safety education programs that help to prevent emergencies from occurring. If an emergency does occur, however, we must respond quickly with enough manpower, at any time of day, to reduce damage and injury by expeditiously bringing the situation under control. This is an absolute obligation of a fire company.
Proactive, prompt, and capable public safety agencies are among the many factors that make a community attractive to businesses, home buyers, and visitors. A safe community is a prosperous community. As our community continues to evolve, our response capability must also evolve to maintain the standard of living Neshannock’s citizens have come to enjoy.
With all these factors in mind, our planning committee has been actively studying several staffing models ranging from traditional to unorthodox. We are examining incentive programs, employment scenarios, and cooperative agreements with other public safety agencies. Each iteration has revealed benefits and drawbacks, but each has been a valuable learning experience. Of course, cost is always an important point of discussion in all planning session. We recognize, though, that a thoughtful planning process allows achievement of maximum value to the citizens at minimum cost. We are grateful for the support that we have received from township government and look forward to working together in planning the next generation of the fire service in Neshannock Township.