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Better together?: From fire to police, emergency service providers face specter of regionalization

Better together?: From fire to police, emergency service providers face specter of regionalization

From the Better Together: Emergency services consolidation in Cumberland County series
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It’s becoming a reality in Shippensburg, under discussion in Carlisle, and causing waves in Mechanicsburg. Discussions range from fire and EMS to police departments.

Everywhere you go, Pennsylvania towns are wondering if regionalization may be the key to survival in a difficult era for public safety providers.

“We’re all suffering from a manpower crisis,” said Cumberland Goodwill EMS Assistant Chief Nathan Harig. “Around the country, everyone’s having this discussion.”

Pennsylvania has long been an outlier with its hyper-localized units of control for public safety services. Take firefighting: with nearly 1,800 registered fire departments, Pennsylvania has more than any other state, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Cumberland County has 33 fire companies, 11 basic life support EMS organizations, and five advance life support EMS organizations.

Public safety providers have historically been reluctant to combine forces, wary of losing local control, impacts on quality, and the politics of consolidation. Now, external factors may be forcing their hands.

Statewide, the number of firefighters has declined over by 80 percent over the past 40 years. Making matters worse, cost and training requirements for volunteer fire and EMS agencies have blossomed. Several local leaders said a lack of volunteers is pushing organizations that would prefer to be independent to seek strength in numbers through partnerships.

EMS organizations face the same recruitment and training hurdles, as well as difficulties in recouping the cost of responding to emergency calls, Harig said.

Meanwhile, a budget proposal by Gov. Tom Wolf to make municipalities that rely on state police pay for the service may also push small towns to band together to form regional police departments.

For this “Better Together” package, which runs today and Monday in print, we took a look at ongoing fire regionalization plans in Cumberland County, and why some volunteer firefighters might resist the trend. We also examined what a county-wide fire department — a concept brought to life in nearby Frederick County, Maryland — might look like.

On the police front, we explored the advantages and disadvantages of the Northern York County Regional Police Department, which covers 150 square miles.

Finally, we highlighted the Cumberland County emergency services training program for high school students, a combined effort of several county school districts that helps curb the drop in volunteerism by preparing students for careers as a firefighter, emergency medical technician or paramedic.

Overall, emergency service providers who have overseen or studied regionalization provided three recommendations:

  • Trust is needed for organizations to work together. If leaders don’t trust each other, there will be more bumps in the road.
  • Regionalization doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. It can start with something as simple as training together while maintaining separate administrations, and still benefit everyone involved.
  • Working together requires leadership at the municipal level and buy-in from rank-and-file employees and volunteers.

In the end, organizations have to be able to put aside their desire for control and prioritize the needs of the communities they serve, according to Jerry Ozog, director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Institute.

“It’s a critical time in Pennsylvania for organizations to look deeply into how they operate and assess their current capabilities,” Ozog said. “If they find any deficits, they need to … remember that the citizens are the number one thing to think about.”

Daniel Walmer covers public safety for The Sentinel. You can reach him by email at dwalmer@cumberlink.com or by phone at 717-218-0021.

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