Answering the Call: Alpha volunteers are at the ready, but as the region grows, so does the prospect of a paid fire service
The call came in to the Alpha Fire Station in downtown State College around 9:20 on a recent weeknight. Dispatchers from the county’s emergency communications center were reporting a wildfire on Susan Lane in Halfmoon Township, about a mile from Stormstown.
The initial plan was to send two Alpha firefighters and a truck to help out the Port Matilda Fire Department, which has the primary response in that part of the county.
Two firefighters suited up while others gathered in the fire engine bay. But after a few minutes, word came through that it was actually a contained fire. The Alphas’ response was called off, the two firefighters removed their gear, and the sense of urgency that came over the station quickly faded back to a quiet evening.
The two Alphas who were going to take a truck to Halfmoon Township were volunteering their time, as were the others on duty in the station that night. In fact, all 94 Alpha firefighters are volunteers, spending time at the fire company’s three local stations ready to respond to whatever comes across the scanner.
The trouble is, though, the Centre Region is growing at a pace that officials worry will make it difficult, if not impossible, for an all-volunteer force to sufficiently serve it five, 10 years down the road. The number of people volunteering isn’t growing, but there will be more residents and buildings that need protecting from fire. Crews could be called in and out of the three Alpha stations multiple times a day.
Instead, local government officials may face, for the first time, having to pay millions of dollars to staff a full-time firefighting force.
“We’re driving a call volume that is exceedingly difficult strictly with volunteers,” says Steve Bair, fire director for the Centre Region Council of Governments, which oversees the force.
Volunteers “live, work, go to school, and the fire alarm is going off four times a day – that’s a problem,” he says. “I’m telling the elected officials, it’s going to be an expense you’ve never had to deal with.”
Change won’t happen fast
Alpha Fire Company has been all-volunteer since its founding in 1899. It has grown from one station downtown on South Fraser Street to three – one at South Atherton Street and West Beaver Avenue and substations in Patton Township and College Township. This all-volunteer force is responsible for 108 square miles of land that contains a population, including Penn State students, that is larger than Allentown, the state’s third-largest city.
air and other officials interviewed for this article said whatever change happens will not happen fast and a volunteer service would supplement a full-time crew. First, a group of local elected officials is being organized by the Centre Region COG and the group is expected to hire a consultant to study the various ways of offering fire service. The committee consists of representatives from the municipalities that fund the Alpha Fire Company – State College plus College, Ferguson, and Patton townships – as well as Harris and Halfmoon townships, Penn State, the Centre Region police chiefs and the fire company itself.
The last time the region took this deep a look at fire protection was in 2005. One of the recommendations from that study was the creation of Bair’s position, a full-time director to manage the day-to-day operations. Bair says it’s time for another look, now almost 15 years later.
If the COG committee approves hiring a consultant, Bair is hopeful the consultant’s work would be completed from January to June 2020, in time for local governments to start planning for their 2021 budgets.
Under the current fire services agreement, the Centre Region Fire Protection Program received a little more than $1 million from State College and College, Patton, Ferguson, and Benner township governments in 2018 to fund its operations. The funding formula is based on population, minus Penn State students.
Ferguson Township contributed the most, at almost $315,000. State College contributed $263,000, Patton Township $252,000, and College Township $189,000. Benner Township provided almost $4,000 to serve what’s known as Benner Independent, a sliver of the township that is part of the State College Area School District.
Penn State provided a little more than $101,000.
The municipalities and the university collectively contributed $390,000 in 2018 to a reserve fund to pay for big-ticket items, such as fire trucks and equipment.
Bair has shared with local officials the cost estimates of a full-time crew so they know the magnitude of what’s ahead.
Starting this year, volunteers get a $1,128 stipend for their service, double the $584 from the year before. The amount for protection for this year in the COG’s 2018 budget was $1.2 million.
However, a force that consists of 18 firefighters scheduled to keep the three stations covered all day, every day could cost $4.6 million in wages and benefits. Bair estimates another $1.4 million to cover costs for training and equipment.
That’s $6 million.
“It’s sobering and financially challenging,” says George Downsbrough, chairman of the Patton Township Board of Supervisors. “We can’t go from what we’re paying today to millions of dollars more overnight.”
Downsbrough says the municipalities need to take a serious look and he would like to see a strategic plan in place to guide the decision-making.
“We’re talking about something that’s going to cost these municipalities millions of dollars and I think it’s worth spending $50,000 today” on a consultant “to try to get out in front of this problem,” he says.
Dan Murphy, a State College councilman who has been appointed to the committee, says the area has offered fire protection for a cost below state and national averages. He agrees that work needs to be done to ensure the area’s safety is a priority.
“While eventually small stipends were introduced as a way to acknowledge the effort and time away from their families to protect ours, current realities require us to take a renewed look at the structure of the department, compensation, and long-range fiscal planning,” he says. “We want to be ready, with a plan, before we find ourselves in need of first responders but without the capacity to respond.”
Rapid population growth
The factors driving these realities aren’t slowing.
The population of State College and College, Patton and Ferguson townships – Alpha’s primary service area – grew 30 percent from 1990-2010, according to the U.S. Census, from 65,000 to almost 85,000. Pennsylvania’s population over that time frame grew 7 percent by comparison.
The signs of growth are all over – large swaths of farmland have turned into residential neighborhoods and blocks of downtown State College have morphed into high-rise apartment buildings. New retail plazas, restaurants, office buildings, streets, and traffic lights are popping up all over the area.
Jim Steff, the executive director of the Centre Region COG, says the area saw $500 million in new construction each of the past two years, further evidencing the need for a new approach to fire protection.
“There are unintended consequences of growth and I don’t see the current building boom letting up,” Steff says. “In thinking ahead, it’s become apparent to us that at some point in the future, the current model’s not going to work. We’re going to need to tweak it.”
A growing population base hasn’t meant a growing base of volunteers.
Statewide, the number of volunteers has been in a nosedive since the 1970s. A Pennsylvania Senate report in November said the state’s fire service was “in crisis,” noting the number of volunteer firefighters statewide has plunged 87 percent over five decades, from about 300,000 in the 1970s to 60,000 in the early 2000s to only 38,000 now.
Shawn Kauffman, the emergency management coordinator for the Centre Region COG and an Alpha volunteer, says fewer people are growing up with their local fire company as a fixture in their lives, as it may have been for their parents or grandparents. And as people are working further away from home, they’re unavailable to respond when the pager sounds.
“In a small town, that’s how volunteer fire companies work,” Kauffman says. “When the pager goes off or the siren blows, they drop everything and go support their community.”
At Alpha, there’s no volunteer crisis – yet. Alpha has 94 volunteers, but officials are not betting it will grow or be able to handle increasing calls for service as the region continues to expand. The numbers of volunteers compared to the numbers of incidents over the past 30 years show the trend.
In 1988, 70 members responded to about 300 incidents. The number of volunteers increased to 98 in 1998, as Alpha lowered the minimum age to join from 21 to 18 and more Penn State students signed up. The number of incidents in 1998, though, more than doubled that of 1988, at about 700.
2008 saw the highest number of volunteers, 117, and an increasing number of incidents, 1,027.
By last year, though, the number of volunteers had dwindled to 94, while the calls kept climbing, to 1,308.
“Our community grew very quickly where we can’t really support that model anymore and provide the service level our community needs and deserves,” says Kauffman, who joined the Alphas in 1998.
While the ranks of volunteers are not looking up, there are still those who love the fire service.
Rob Nese joined in 2015 as a junior at Penn State. He’s since graduated and he continues to volunteer while working as the fire equipment technician for the Centre Region COG. His job is one of the four full-time positions the COG has for fire protection.
He lives at the downtown station and says he spends most of the week there with familiar faces.
“I just get to hang out with my friends all day,” says Nese, who grew up in State College.
One of those friends, Michael Jacunski, is a Penn State senior who joined in 2016. He had volunteered in high school at a local fire company back home in Lancaster County, and so he was looking to continue in college. Like Nese, Jacunski says the camaraderie is one of his favorite aspects.
“I spend the majority of my time here. All my best friends are here,” says Jacunski, who also lives at the downtown station. “Between classes, I hang out here. I can’t imagine spending time anywhere else.”
The thrill of responding to a call is unmatched.
He remembered when an automatic fire alarm was triggered at the transfer station of the Centre County Refuse and Recycling Authority, off Route 26 near the Rockview state prison. It turned out that piles of trash inside were on fire, and crews ended up at the scene for three hours.
“We were dumping water on it for a while,” Jacunski says. “You never know what you’re getting yourself into. It’s exhilarating.”
But unlike Nese, Jacunski’s days as a volunteer firefighter are winding down. He will graduate in May and in July he will start medical school in the Pittsburgh area. He hopes to be a surgeon.
He concedes he can’t possibly commit to volunteering at a firehouse there with all of the demands he expects in his day-to-day life in medical school.
It’s an example of what is underpinning the decline in volunteerism. And it’s especially tough for Jacunski, because giving up the fire station is like saying goodbye to a dear friend.
“I fell in love with it when I started,” Jacunski says.
Mike Dawson is a freelance writer who lives in College Township.