The Future of Newtown Township's Paid Fire Services
Applying BCPC's Fire Services Analysis to Newtown Township
On April 1, 2021, I attended a Zoom meeting hosted by the Bucks County Consortium. At that meeting Evan Stone, Executive Director of the Bucks County Planning Commission (BCPC), made a presentation titled “The Future of Bucks County Fire Service.” This was actually a summary of the full update report (download the presentation here and the full report here). This post focuses on applying the takeaways from that presentation to Newtown Township.
I recorded a short section from the end of the presentation and the Q&A session in the following podcast:
Paid Fire Departments
Newtown is only one of six Bucks County Municipalities that has a paid fire department: the Newtown Emergency Services Department (NESD) of 8 full-time fire fighters (see table below).
All of them operate only Monday through Friday and depend on volunteers to fill the gaps on weekends and after hours on weekdays. In Newtown, we have the volunteer Newtown Fire Association (NFA). As is the case with many, if not all, volunteer fire departments, have a problem answering calls and recruiting/retaining members (read “The Volunteer Newtown Fire Association is at a Turning Point”).
FACT: In 2018 there were 38,000 volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania. In 1970 there were 300,000.
This has led Newtown Township Supervisors to do several things, among them:
- Implement a Fire Service Agreement between NESD and Newtown Fire Association whereby NESD Chief Glenn Forsythe is now also the Fire Chief of the NFA. Paradoxically, this agreement also cut the Township's yearly funding of NFA from $175,000 to $160,000.
- Apply for a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from FEMA. "Our solution," noted Chief Forsythe in the SAFER application, "is to hire 5 additional Firefighters so that we can create 7 day a week coverage with 12 hour shifts and maintain proper rotations. Each position will carry a salary of $67,877.80 and benefits of $57,713.63 which includes FICA/Medicare, Family Medical/Vision/Rx/Dental, Life & Disability Insurance, Worker's Camp, and Pension Contributions."
How Much Does It Cost to Run a Full-Time Fire Department?
According to the BCPC, the average cost of a firefighter without benefits is $59,904.00 per year based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other studies. With benefits the cost of a firefighter is estimated to be $78,000.00 per year based on a 40 hour week.
NESD has a staff of 8 full-time firefighters with a 60 hour week. Based on BCPC’s estimate, those firefights should cost the township $117,000 each per year, not including equipment purchases, training, etc. The 2021 budget includes $1,171,225 for NESD salaries, benefits, supplies, and training), which is $146,403 per firefighter!
The SAFER 3-year grant application for $1,883,875.45 is for hiring 5 firefighters at an estimated $125,592 per year per firefighter with benefits included. This is based on an estimated entry-level salary of $67,660 plus $57,713 in benefits.
It should be noted that for an urban “Demand Zone” such as Newtown Township with more than 1,000 resident per square mile, requires a "Minimum Staff to Respond" of 15 firefighters. So, even with a staff of 13 (8 current + 5 new hires with SAFER grant money, if available), Newtown Township would still be short 2 full-time firefighters.
Where Will the Money Come From?
A SAFER grant (see above) is one option, but it should be noted that Newtown Township has already failed in its first attempt to secure that money.
Some money may come from Newtown Borough. At the February 16, 2021, Board of Supervisors Work Session, the supervisors proposed a possible Intermunicipal Cooperation Agreement for fire services whereby the Township would charge Newtown Borough $300,000 per year for providing fire services between 6 AM and 6 PM, Monday through Friday (read the minutes of that meeting). Negotiations are continuing between the Township and Borough.
The only other option is to raise taxes – specifically a special “fire tax.” A fire tax is levied by some municipalities – including Newtown Township, which currently has a 1.00 mill fire tax. By law, a fire tax cannot exceed 3 mills unless a municipal referendum is passed and only up to 1 mill may be used for salary and benefits, according the BCPC.
BTW, Newtown Township can implement a fire tax up to 4.0 mills because a referendum was approved by voters several years ago to allow it.
UPDATE: The Chief also appeared before the Newtown Township Board of Supervisors (BOS) at the October 18, 2021, Newtown Township 2022 Budget Presentation meeting. He answered my question about how the $330,000 donation to the Newtown Fire Association (NFA) in the Township Manager’s recommended 2022 budget will be used. The final approved budget includes about $128,000 to help pay for a new volunteer firefighter retention plan.
- “January 2021 Newtown Fire & Emergency Services Incident Report”: Only 1 out 56 calls (2%) made by NESD in January 2021 involved a fire; 70% involved rescue and EMS. According to BCPC, in 2018 there were 20,640 incidents in Bucks County - only 10% were actual fires.
Posted on 10 Apr 2021, 01:37 - Category: First Responders
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