Smaller emergency service groups struggling

WILMORE – Counting firefighters, fire police and truck drivers, Wilmore Volunteer Fire Company had about 12 members.

But Borough Council, which voted Monday to end its relationship with the company – effectively shutting it down – said some of those dozen men weren’t trained and didn’t follow safety protocol.

And some lived so far outside the borough that surrounding companies, including Portage, Summerhill and Beaverdale, all located miles away, were on-scene first.

Council President Lori Schrift said issues with the company date back months, and council had pushed off its vote for a long time because no one wanted to see the company shut down.

But with a borough budget of under $30,000 and fewer than 250 residents on a half-dozen streets, Wilmore could not afford to pay for rising workers’ compensation costs – expected to go up 25 percent every year for the next three years, she said – and push for compliance on safety and training issues.

“(The department’s) been trying. To say they haven’t been trying would be negligent,” she said, but it wasn’t enough to handle the safety needs of the borough. “This isn’t anything we’ve entered into lightly.”

Wilmore is not alone in its problems. Shrinking membership and risings costs have played a role in several changes to local emergency services.

In November, Gallitzin Borough shut down its ambulance service due to decreasing reimbursements from insurance and fewer local calls. Manager Bob Beers said at the time that “The small-town ambulances are a thing of the past.”

The next month, Lilly and Cresson fire companies contacted Gallitzin officials to discuss a merger of their fire departments, hoping to share costs.

Cresson Borough Council has addressed its “inevitable” merger with Sankertown Borough multiple times.

Even Cambria County is getting in on emergency management regionalization, working with 10 other counties to form the Southwestern Pennsylvania Emergency Response Group and share resources, which county officials said will save millions.

Trying to get locals on board with closures and mergers is more difficult, however. Wilmore’s fire company had its ups and downs, residents said, but none expected it to close.

Cambria County Department of Emergency Services executive director Ron Springer said Summerhill Borough’s fire company has been put in charge by the borough in the interim, while Wilmore’s council works on a long-term contract, but that three companies – Summerhill Township, Portage and Summerhill Borough – will respond to fire alarms.

Springer said alarm cards predesignate which engines will respond in an emergency where mutual aid agreements are in place between municipalities. When Wilmore was removed from its alarm card, it bumped up Summerhill Township to the first engine.

But whichever company arrives to a fire first will take control of the scene until it is relieved by a higher-ranking fire official, or if Summerhill Borough arrives after.

Council’s decision came down Monday evening, but some residents remained confused about the vote days later. Others were not aware of the decision until a reporter knocked on their doors to ask them about it.

Rosia Fisher, who lives across the street from the fire department building with her three children, ages 8, 6 and 1, said she worries what will happen now if there’s a fire in her home.

“My house could be completely burnt down before they got here” from outside Wilmore, she said.

Resident Jake Strayer, a former firefighter, said government regulation is killing small companies who are unable to find members willing to go through the training and certification process.

Others said they were sad to see the company go, but felt council did what it had to do.

“It’s a shame, but it makes sense,” said Tom Fry, who can see the fire company building from his front porch along Main Street.

His wife, Roberta, said the decision upset her, but she thinks other fire companies will be able to handle the calls. Schrift said council has not yet decided who to contract with for fire services, but that county officials have been notified of Wilmore’s closing, and there is a plan in place for 911 calls.

She said residents probably will not see an increase in costs for fire protection due to workers’ compensation savings, which currently eats up about 20 percent of the borough’s budget.

And although firefighters aren’t allowed access to their equipment, likely valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, Schrift said council isn’t planning on kicking the firemen out of its borough-owned building.

Council will allow them time to figure out what to do with the trucks and

radios, among other items, she said.

Fire Chief Bill Conklin said there is to be a company-wide meeting for members to decide what to do.

A lot of the equipment was purchased with grant money, and the best option likely will be to donate it to other local companies in need.

“We talked with our attorney and to representatives, and we are pretty much just shutting the doors,” he said.