Bor­ough ap­proves fire­fighter in­cen­tive

The Community Connection - - FRONT PAGE - By Evan Brandt ebrandt@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @PottstownNews on Twit­ter

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.

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