The Price of Rescue

Financial alarms have begun to sound at area fire and ambulance companies. What happens if the dollars dry up? (Can we afford to find out?)

(From left) Radnor Fire Company chief James Kelly, Paoli Fire Company deputy chief Elwood Adams, Berwyn Fire Company captain Eamon Brazunas, Paoli Fire Company firefighter/EMT Eric Fedor and Tredyffrin Township supervisor and fire liaison John DiBuonaventuro.Fire trucks and police cars pulled into the parking lot, but on this pleasant Sunday afternoon last May, they weren’t responding to an emergency. Uniforms pressed and medals buffed to match the sheen of their vehicles, Upper Main Line police officers and firefighters marched into the Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli to attend a special “Blue Mass” in their honor. Unfortunately, few among the public they serve were on hand for the occasion.

Four months earlier, local firefighters and residents had interacted under very different circumstances. A Saturday morning blaze at the Strafford Station Apartments displaced 60 residents and summoned several fire companies, including Berwyn, Paoli and Radnor. At such moments, gratitude runs deep, and the dollar value of public safety is immeasurable.

Yet money is as critical as water to firefighting, an essential service built on a powerful volunteer tradition that, hereabouts, dates to Benjamin Franklin. And since cash flow is so uncertain in the current climate of economic tightening, fire companies are transmitting distress signals. A 5-percent reduction in Tredyffrin Township’s portion of fire-company funding triggered a strong response from the firefighting community late last year, though private contributions restored the shortfall. “[But] what happens next year—and the year after?” poses Matt Norris, chief of the Berwyn Fire Company, which fields about 2,000 ambulance and 1,000 fire calls a year.

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Rip Tilden, the company’s president, believes the day is coming “when we won’t be able to fund emergency services in the ways we have.”

That day may not be circled on the calendar just yet, but the long-range trend isn’t promising. The growing public perception is that local governments fully fund fire companies, resulting in less-than-robust donations of late. Other culprits include the widening gap between ambulance billings and payment, greater demand for advanced life support, reduced insurance reimbursements, rising personnel costs, expanded training requirements, dwindling volunteerism, increased government regulation, and grant funding that’s been slashed. In short, revenue is flat—or reduced—in the face of rising costs and need for services.

Berwyn’s 13-year forecast spots trouble halfway through. “Based on what we know today, six to eight years out, we’ll be strapped financially,” says Tilden, who estimates that the company will break even this year per its operations budget of $1.4-$1.5 million.

Meanwhile, Berwyn’s capital expenditures have been significant this year. A peek behind the bay doors of the 100-year-old firehouse on Bridge Avenue just off Lancaster reveals $5 million worth of rolling stock that needs periodic replacement: A new $950,000 tower-ladder truck and a $100,000 ambulance will soon join the fleet, and the company continues to repay $300,000 in state loans for two fire trucks.

Construction of a new firehouse is a long-term capital project—one that will require a campaign to raise $7-$10 million. “We’ve done the architectural work,” says Tilden. “We’ll have to buy the real estate.”

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The company applied much of its 2009 surplus of more than $300,000 toward the purchase of the two new vehicles. More than half the tab for the ladder truck was paid with Pennsylvania Relief Association funds. The rest is covered by additional state loans and a combined annual capital contribution of $140,000 from Tredyffrin and Easttown townships.

Tilden characterizes last year’s budget surplus as “not sustainable,” attributing the excess to belt-tightening in anticipation of the new vehicle purchases.

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Berwyn Fire Company president Rip Tilden (left) and chief Matt Norris with the station’s ladder truck, a million-dollar vehicle that needs to be replaced.Berwyn generates more than half its operating revenue from insurance payments for ambulance-related services, while the townships’ contributions account for about 20 percent and public fundraising 15 percent. The company receives $125,000 a year in rental fees from five mobile phone providers for the use of the tower on its property, and another $50,000 from grants and other rental income. Its principal expenses are salaries and benefits for paid personnel; other costs are associated with facility and vehicle maintenance, service delivery (e.g., disposable drugs), and day-to-day administration.

Nine full-time employees—including firefighter emergency medical technicians and paramedics—staff Berwyn, whose workforce is bolstered by 60 volunteers. In providing services, “there’s no line between paid staff and volunteers,” says Norris.

Indeed, volunteers have been the foundation of firefighting in America since the bucket brigades of Colonial times. Franklin’s Union Fire Company was Philadelphia’s first. Modern firefighting and emergency medical services continue to rely heavily on volunteers for both critical response and financial solvency, saving any given local government (read: taxpayers) millions of dollars a year, according to most estimates. “You’ve got free labor here,” says Andy Block, chief of the Gladwyne Fire Company, one of seven affiliated with the Lower Merion Fire Department.

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Yet people are under the impression that the township pays for everything, says Chris Flanagan, assistant chief at Gladwyne and chief of Narberth Ambulance. Not everyone thinks so, of course. But an increasingly mobile society creates more newcomers who are unfamiliar with the local landscape—and even longtime residents lose sight of neighborhood needs.

Berwyn typically receives about a 20-percent response to its biannual fund drives, buttressed by a November turkey raffle (which raises about $10,000) and an April dinner at Berwyn United Methodist Church. Fundraisers and other efforts to plug budget gaps can place a burden on fire company personnel who may lack the aptitude. “[Firefighters] didn’t sign up to raise money,” says Norris.

Flanagan says that Gladwyne has hosted grant seminars to “stay alive through a very tough time.” Echoing Norris, he adds, “Firefighters didn’t sign up to be grant writers.”

In this economy, even small funding cuts seem ominous, which is why fire and EMS officials protested Tredyffrin’s 2010 budget, in which the township reduced its funding of its three fire companies—Paoli, Berwyn and Radnor—by about $20,000 combined. The 5-percent cut was part of a 15-percent budget reduction, says township supervisor Warren Kampf. A volunteer citizens board assisting the budget process had recommended deeper cuts for the three fire companies. Supervisors and residents subsequently raised more than enough money to make up the difference.

Tredyffrin has tripled its fire-company funding in the past six years, notes Kampf, who adds that “the future is going to include increased contributions” due to rising costs. “In the end,” he says, “fire protection is a critical part of living in our township.”

Tilden certainly shares that perspective. “Maintaining a high quality of [emergency] service has an impact on property values. If insurance company ratings [for a given locale] are high, homeowner’s insurance costs less,” he says.

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With the proliferation of smoke alarms and sprinkler systems, major fires in this day and age have decreased. But when one strikes, equipment and manpower must be tuned and trained. Every company has a timetable for replacing vehicles. “The average life of an ambulance is three years, because you want a decent trade and have to keep up on technology,” says Norris.

Narberth Ambulance executive director Sue Smith. And as safety regulations multiply, so do costs. Likewise, service delivery costs are rising, especially for EMS and stepped-up use of paramedics (to provide advanced life support), a trend that Tilden attributes to an aging population and a more cautious approach by county dispatch. Expanding ALS has a direct effect on the bottom line, as companies that offer the service in-house (e.g., Berwyn) must add staff, and those that contract for it absorb a substantial difference between their cost and reimbursement.

Radnor pays Narberth Ambulance $350 for providing ALS but receives only an average incremental reimbursement of $68. In today’s health insurance arena, Medicare and conventional insurance providers claim they’re being squeezed by ceilings on premiums.

As the ground shifts beneath them, fire companies are already as different as they are similar. The mix of services, funding and personnel may vary from company to company as sharply as the municipalities they serve. Some townships pay the full freight for firehouse and fleet, others nothing at all. So while they all fight fires, Berwyn and Malvern provide in-house basic life support and ALS, while Paoli, Radnor and East Whiteland offer BLS only, and Valley Forge fire only. Some townships—like Radnor and Lower Merion—pay most of the purchase cost of new vehicles, while others pay for a relatively small portion through capital allocations. So the percentages of the budget contributed by local and state government, EMS/ambulance revenue, and public donations may vary wildly. It’s a far cry from the notion that government pays for everything.

In Radnor, where the township holds the mortgage on a modern, streamlined firehouse that offers unusually ample parking, president Dave Roderick oversees an operation that includes five paid firefighter EMTs and 70 volunteers who respond to some 900 fire calls (only 100 “legitimate,” 10-15 of them “serious,” Roderick estimates) and between 2,300 and 2,400 ambulance calls per year. The company replaced both of its ambulances late last year for about $150,000 each. And with the township picking up nearly 75 percent of the tab, it has purchased a new $850,000 ladder truck. The company also has three fire trucks and a rescue vehicle that Roderick calls a “giant toolbox on wheels.”

Radnor gets a combined 20-percent response to its annual fund-drive letters (two for firefighting, two for ambulance) and sponsors smaller fundraisers like car washes. Despite the township’s financial muscle, Roderick worries that the fire company faces a future of funding shortfalls and fewer volunteers. “As the volunteer base diminishes, we’ll have to hire [more] paid firefighters,” he says. “The question is, ‘Who pays?’”

While the company taps nursing students from Villanova University and Cabrini College to help provide EMS, “not as many younger guys [as in the past] are coming in” to fight fires, says Roderick.

Pennsylvania has one-fifth the number of volunteer firefighters that it had 30 years ago—and the trend is national. More affluent communities tend to produce fewer candidates for rescue calls. Increasing time demands mandated by the state have discouraged more than a few potential volunteers, as qualifying training classes have added a lot of hours, and volunteers must post for at least 25 percent of the station’s fire calls and drills. “It’s too tough for the average citizen who wants to volunteer,” says Roderick.

As for revenues, that differential between cost and Medicare/Medicaid reimbursement for ALS can be a budget buster. Roderick reports that he is “working with the township to figure out a way to bring ALS into the firehouse,” instead of contracting out to Narberth. Of course, adding ALS workers inevitably means additions to the payroll. “In our lifetimes, these will all be paid fire companies,” Roderick forecasts.

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The Paoli Fire Company has six full-time employees (four firefighter/EMTs, two administrative), six part-time paid staffers, and 45 volunteers who mostly fight fires and provide EMS. It makes about 2,000 calls a year and expects to break even in 2010, says business manager Dan Green. He anticipates a $10,000 increase in net income next year—one that may be more than offset by a projected 15-percent bump in medical insurance premiums and additional higher costs.

Beyond 2011, the outlook is murky. Though Paoli does take advantage of 2-percent state loans to buy new vehicles—and Chester County money at a rate that’s a few points higher to help finance site renovations—its funding is always in a state of flux. “We’re teetering on a delicate balance of these revenues,” says John DiBuonaventuro, a Paoli firefighter/EMT and a Tredyffrin Township supervisor.

“These revenues” come from ambulance/EMS reimbursements, local government funding (aside from Tredyffrin and Easttown, Paoli receives a smaller contribution from Willistown), the state’s insurance relief program, and public donations. The amounts and proportions vary year to year.

DiBuonaventuro opposed Tredyffrin’s funding cut for Paoli, Berwyn and Radnor last year. “Few politicians have the perspective of responder or victim,” he says. “New residents think their taxes pay for these services.”

If volunteer levels continue to fall, says DiBuonaventuro, taxes will pay for firefighting and EMS—additional taxes, that is. Meanwhile, Green emphasizes that the 25-percent response to Paoli’s annual fund drive keeps the company rolling.

As with virtually all fire companies, Bryn Mawr also depends on an annual fundraising mailer. Nine years ago, returns spiked, says president Charley Dolan, but they’ve declined by 20 percent since the year of the 9/11 attacks.

In the heart of Bryn Mawr, the brick firehouse dates to the first decade of the 20th century. Though it’s been outfitted with modern trappings like computers and fitness equipment, you almost expect a horse to clop into the bay, tugging a water truck.

But the horsepower here has long been under the hood. This year, Bryn Mawr sports a new $760,000 Quint, which combines the functions of a ladder truck and a fire engine. Bryn Mawr replaces most of its vehicles after eight or nine years—a more accelerated pace than that of many other companies. “The vehicles become problematic at that point, and we can sell them at a higher amount,” says Dolan.

Bryn Mawr’s 46 active firefighters respond to 550-600 calls a year. In the firehouse, three full-time staffers keep the building and equipment in fighting trim, and more than a dozen volunteers handle administrative chores. Narberth Ambulance and Radnor Fire Company provide EMS for the vicinity.

Lower Merion Township pays for new vehicles and major building repairs at Bryn Mawr, Belmont Hills, Gladwyne, Merion, Penn Wynne/Overbrook Hills, and Union fire companies. (Merion covers Ardmore; Union covers Bala Cynwyd.) The township also currently provides $270,000 for each company’s annual operating budget. Narberth Fire Company receives funding from the borough. The proximity of the seven companies is certainly an asset in the event of a major fire. “We’ve been maintaining our response time despite a decline in volunteers,” says Lower Merion fire marshal Charles McGarvey, former chief at Bryn Mawr. “I believe that, someday, you will see some type of consolidation as the volunteer numbers continue to dwindle.”

Despite the economic downturn and its effect on government funds, all-volunteer Broomall Fire Company has shown a knack for obtaining federal Assistance to Firefighters grants intended for safety and prevention. A $41,000 award to purchase new gear finally arrived two years after approval, and $140,000 is due per last year’s thumbs-up for a fire simulator to be shared among six other Delaware County companies, all of which join Broomall for the 20-percent co-payment share. Broomall also received a small grant from the state this year and is using the money to pay down a loan on one of its fire trucks. Perhaps significantly, no new grants have been awarded this year.

The state and federal support helps Broomall stay above the waterline. Net revenue of $41,000 from its spring and fall carnivals augmented an annual fund drive that generated about $160,000, thanks to a healthy 60-percent response from residents. Marple Township’s annual contribution is $125,000; Radnor Township, served peripherally by Broomall, adds $5,000. The company’s income and expenses for the year are almost identical (at about $340,000), the latter including $20,000 set-asides for the internal truck and building funds. “We’re a million-dollar entity and have all the problems a business has,” says Jim Capuzzi, president and ace grant writer.

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Broomall’s 45 active firefighters respond to 700 calls a year—and that number is growing, says Capuzzi, due to the increase in home alarm systems (often issuing false alarms), cell phones reporting car fires (usually just overheated vehicles), and accidents on the Blue Route. Like Bryn Mawr, Broomall has purchased a new Quint truck—this one for $835,000—with Marple assuming more than half the cost, and the company’s truck fund and state loan monies paying the balance. In the meantime, the company is adding to its building fund in hopes of constructing a new firehouse. The original, just off of West Chester Pike, has seen four additions.

At Route 3’s western terminus, firefighting duties are handled by the West Chester Fire Department, whose three member companies cover a 27-square-mile area that includes parts of West Goshen, East Bradford, Westtown, Birmingham and Thornbury (Chester County) townships, in addition to the borough, which owns the fire trucks and receives fees from the townships for fire protection.

As he helps prepare the specs for a new ladder truck, West Chester chief Michael Cotter says he can feel “things tightening up” at the borough and anticipates an eventual impact on his budget. A combined 150 firefighters answer 1,400 calls per year among the three companies. Like Broomall, West Chester is 100-percent volunteer and fights fires only, leaving EMS to other companies.

Narberth Ambulance—the shorter handle for Volunteer Medical Service Corps of Lower Merion and Narberth—is such a company. In business since 1944 and based in Ardmore since 1997, it also serves Radnor and Conshohocken, with 52 employees (24 full time) and 70-plus volunteers providing BLS and ALS (7,200 calls last year). As a private, nonprofit organization, Narberth doesn’t qualify for tax subsidies.

“Most [ambulance companies] compete for survival,” says Narberth executive director Sue Smith, who says ambulances carry a typical sticker price of $100,000, plus $50,000 for equipment. Required safety and technology upgrades swell costs, as does the escalating expense of drugs.

Seeking to substitute cooperation for competition, Smith helped found the 15-member Montgomery County Ambulance Administrators Group, which tries to persuade legislators that change is needed and, if nothing else, finds value in commiseration. Shared inequities include a chronic shortfall in payment for services, due largely to insurance companies reimbursing patients directly (ambulance companies then have to recoup their ends), and the lack of any payment for answered 911 calls that don’t result in patients being transported. When ambulance personnel are on standby at, say, a large fire, their time is not compensated.

Along with ambulance transport payments, EMS providers receive operating revenue from local government contributions, fund drives and grants. An uneven distribution of the state’s $10 traffic-ticket surcharge also finds its way to ambulance companies. These days, most face the prospect of budget deficits. “We cross our fingers for donors to come in,” says Smith.

Money to the rescue.

How to Help

Even if you don’t like hot places and high vantage points, you can help your local fire company level the playing field. The simplest and most effective way is to respond to annual fund drives. This is not, after all, a direct-mail campaign pitching the latest rejuvenating skin cream. Toss the mailer aside now, and one day in the not-too-distant future, it may well come in the form of a fee —with a higher dollar figure.

“People can also help by joining the fire company,” says Berwyn chief Matt Norris. While battling blazes and providing EMS require rigorous skills and stoutheartedness, almost all firehouses welcome additional help with administrative and fundraising tasks.

Bryn Mawr Fire Company is one of them. “One man helped improve the computer system to make our fund drive more efficient,” says president Charley Dolan. Dolan is always on the lookout for volunteers with a “business mind”—not to mention those with a disposition to fight fires.

Similarly, the mat is out at Broomall, where the women’s auxiliary keeps the company’s biannual carnival wheels spinning. “We can always use more volunteers, even if not ‘active’ [firefighters],” says president Jim Capuzzi, who’d be especially delighted to find some expertise in the arts of fundraising.

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