Consolidation would combat biggest roadblocks for Sunbury fire crews

Nov. 20—SUNBURY — All six fire departments in Sunbury are working toward consolidation to combat a lack of volunteers and encourage more cooperation.

In the summer of 2021, according to fire and public safety officials, some chiefs in the city resurrected the idea — first considered years ago — of bringing the companies together under one umbrella because it just made sense.

"The lack of volunteers and the fact that it is hard to get people during the day when there may be an emergency just seems to make sense to put everyone together in one spot," said Steve Jeffery, Northumberland County's public safety director and Shamokin fire chief. "I think it's a good thing and the next topic is even regionalization."

Jeffery said when there are incidents, Shamokin may come to Sunbury, or vice versa and that the departments are all working together anyway.

After chiefs in the city expressed interest, Sunbury City Council asked for a consolidation feasibility report from the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED).

DCED recommended developing a strategic plan for sustainable fire and emergency medical service in conjunction with local and regional authorities under the auspices of and assistance from available Commonwealth of Pennsylvania resources, according to City Administrator Derrick Backer.

"The report wanted us to look at creating a plan to be more sustainable for fire services and that is what we are working to accomplish with consolidation," he said.

Council approved a Strategic Management Planning Program audit and five-year plan created by Management Partners, of Ohio, in 2021. The initial report was provided by Wayne Chapman, of Management Partners.

He recommended the city's fire department begin the process of consolidation.

Currently, the city gives $10,000 a year to each of the six volunteer fire departments — Friendship Hose, Sunbury No. 1, Rescue Hose, Americus Hose, East End Hose and Good Will Hose, according to Backer.

"To have all the equipment in one spot is a good thing," Jeffrey said.

In Sunbury alone, there will be two new fire trucks being put in service in 2023. The Americus Hose Co., on Linden Street, just recently purchased a ladder truck for more than $1 million. The East Ends Fire Department purchased a pumper engine truck for around $700,000.

If departments consolidated the trucks, gear and apparatus would all be under one roof, according to fire officials.

Sunbury Assistant Fire Chief Jay Long said he is in favor of consolidation.

Long, who suffered an injury while fighting a fire in Northumberland in June, remains on crutches and was unable to work his regular job.

Long said the lack of manpower and volunteers doing more and more at scenes from various departments can be detrimental to services.

"Doing the job in itself, an injury can occur at any time, but with fewer people, it makes it stressful," he said. "There are not as many people out doing this.

"Anything you do takes a budget and financially it makes sense to consolidate. Each company puts out so much money and for fire service to continue to provide what it provides means we all need to be together."

Long said some fire apparatus is not being utilized.

"We have things spread out all over," he said.

Long said he also agrees with Jeffery on regionalization.

"That is even a more cost-effective way to operate than just a single city consolidation."

Mayor Josh Brosious said the city is moving forward with consolidation and that he hopes to see it complete by the end of 2023.

"I am happy that consolidation is in the process and moving along quickly," he said. "This has been in the works for a long time but happy to see the progress the fire departments have made to make the department better for Sunbury and surrounding areas.

"Overall this will help our fire department to be more cost-efficient and will help with manpower having one location for all apparatus to be stored."

Sunbury Fire Department Treasurer Dan Saxton told council members at a recent meeting the process was moving forward.

Saxton said the department is working on the new bylaws and said even though there is a long way to go, "we feel we are making progress."

In Northumberland, Fire Chief Brian Ginck said Robb Consulting, of Lemoyne, was hired to help finalize the consolidation of the Northumberland Borough No. 1s and the Northumberland Hook and Ladder.

The Northumberland Borough No. 1s — a company that began in 1796 — and the Northumberland Hook and Ladder — formed about 100 years later — informally merged their tactical operations in 2015 and have been operating out of the same building even as each company still exists as a separate entity. They have also maintained separate social clubs for the last six years.

"We hired a new consultant to help us finish the process," said Ginck. "We're actively working toward completion of that. The previous attorney we hired was good at paperwork, but not leading us through the process. We as firemen aren't good at setting up a corporation."

Ginck expects the consolidation to be complete by early 2023.

The No. 1 engine and the Hookies' ladder and rescue trucks are all housed at the Hookies at 348 Fifth St. Due to low manpower, all firefighters come to that central location to ready themselves in fire events, said Ginck.

Backer said Sunbury plans to follow Northumberland's model for consolidation.

"The city and its fire stations have been discussing, and working toward, consolidation for well over a year now," he said. "Our goal is to separate the fire station from the social clubs while leaving the social clubs intact and operational while placing all fire equipment, personnel, and fire trucks under one roof.

"The details are currently being worked on and myself, representing the city, and representatives from all six stations meet monthly to go over what subcommittees have put together."

Backer said the final result of the discussions will be a "working document that I believe all stations will agree to and will allow for consolidation on paper."

After that, he said, officials will begin seeking funding for construction of a new building to house the consolidated department.

"I want to reiterate that we are separating the social clubs from the fire stations themselves legally," Backer said. "We want all social clubs to continue and prosper after consolidation is complete."

Backer said consolidation will also help the city financially.

"Consolidation helps with lowering costs of maintaining an active fire department while providing for newer and more up-to-date equipment," he said. "It will help with any manpower issue that may be currently taking place by having all personnel head to one central location instead of six different stations.

"This will allow for volunteerism to stay as the primary firefighting source for the city. I will also help prevent the city from needing to move to a paid fire department which that additional cost could be passed on to the taxpayers if the city needed to move in that direction."

William Cameron Engine Company, in Lewisburg, is a consolidated company that operates with a combination of paid and volunteer personnel.