Borough approves firefighter incentive
POTTSTOWN » Fire Chief Michael Lessar Jr. wants to offer an incentive to the borough’s 82 volunteer firefighters to show up at more calls — money.
To be clear, Pottstown does not have a paid professional fire department, despite the fact that there are 12 paid drivers who are usually the first to arrive at a fire scene.
During a presentation to borough council May 9, Lessar said a fully-paid professional department would cost taxpayers $6.5 million; whereas the current fire budget is only $1.7 million — thus a savings of nearly $5 million.
And despite a statewide shortage of volunteers — from 300,000 in 1960 to under 50,000 today, Pottstown’s four fire companies actually have more volunteers than most departments.
With volunteers, paid drivers and the chief, Pottstown has a total of 95 firefighters.
The problem is encouraging them to show up to a call.
“We don’t have a volunteer problem so much as we have a response problem.” — Michael Lessar Jr., Pottstown fire chief
As lifestyles change, with fewer volunteers working close to home, many with two or three jobs and training requirement increases (178 hours at a minimum), firefighters don’t show up at every call, said Lessar.
In 2017, the Pottstown Fire Department received 963 calls through 911, but the most active volunteer throughout all four companies responded to fewer than 250, he said.
A group of about 20 members comprises the department’s most active and reliable corps of volunteers, and even they respond to only 150 calls or less. Most show up to 50 calls or less — only about 5 percent of all calls received.
“We don’t have a volunteer problem so much as we have a response problem,” said Lessar.
Not all calls are structure fires and those are the calls that receive the biggest response, said Lessar.
In 2016, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed Act 172, to offer property and earned-income tax breaks for volunteer firefighters, but that won’t work in Pottstown, said Lessar, because many of the volunteers either live in other municipalities or don’t own property here.
Only 16 volunteers would qualify for Act 172 and of them, only six of them responded to any calls in 2017 and those six only responded to 20 calls or less, said Lessar.
To make matters worse, enacting Act 172 would cost the borough more than $17,000 in lost revenue.
Instead, Lessar said he sought council’s authorization to put into place an incentive program that rewards volunteers who show up, who get certifications and extra training and help fundraise.
If every volunteer took advantage of every incentive, it could cost as much as $45,000, but is more likely to cost between $10,00 to $15,000 said Lessar, who added he is pursuing grants to cover the cost.
The incentive would work on a point system, with one point equaling $1 and an annual maximum of $550 points. Different actions, such as responding to a fire call, getting certified and living in the borough, would all provide points on a set scale.
The system would not apply to the paid drivers.
“I understand the need for this,” said Councilman Dennis Arms, who resigned later in the meeting.
“I’m just not crazy about funneling tax dollars to people who don’t live in the borough,” he said.
“A volunteer who does not live in the borough is still providing a service to the borough by fighting fires,” said Lessar.
The matter was adopted unanimously at council’s May 14 meeting.