May 20--The calls for ambulances kept coming and coming. People in Parkesburg, where Raymond Stackhouse lives, needed help. But the former chief of the Parkesburg Fire Company often had no volunteers to send. So the emergency passed to someone else.
"It made us feel like we were failing the community," Stackhouse said.
That was the spark that started the four-year process of forming the Keystone Valley Fire Department, a joining of the nearby fire companies of Parkesburg, Pomeroy, and Atglen.
The department, which marked its first anniversary in March, is up to 51 active volunteers and can afford to pay 20 part-time firefighter/EMTs to go on medical calls, said Stackhouse, now the Keystone Valley fire chief. The department covers more than 23 square miles of western Chester County.
"Volunteer fire departments have to consider cooperative efforts," said Stackhouse, who is also president of the Chester County Fire Chiefs Association, "or they're not going to survive."
Calls to fire departments nationwide have tripled in the last 25 years, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Meanwhile, the number of volunteer firefighters, who make up most fire departments in the country, has dropped by 13 percent since 1984, said the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Edward Mann, the Pennsylvania state fire commissioner, has suggested fire company mergers as one way to fix the personnel shortage, when they make sense financially and geographically. It's helped in the Parkesburg area. An average of 14 people from Keystone Valley's three fire stations respond to a single call now. Before the companies officially combined, together they averaged about six to each call.
Since 2000, there have been about 125 consolidations throughout the state, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, which helps the departments decide what level of collaboration is right for them. The number of requests for help to form partnerships continues to increase, the department said.
A few fire companies invited to join Keystone Valley decided not to because the move wasn't right for them, Stackhouse said.
The Townships of Sadsbury, West Sadsbury and Highland, and Parkesburg Borough all support the Keystone Valley department. Before the merger, the municipalities funded their fire departments with donations. Now, they have each committed money, either with general funds or with a fire protection tax in West Sadsbury.
During the last few years, the number of municipalities working together on projects, both formally and informally, has increased, said Linda Costa, chief of operations for the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs. Towns work together to save money and be more efficient by teaming up on emergency management, uniform construction codes, bulk purchases, and police and fire departments, Costa said.
"It's becoming more prevalent, because budgets and finances are extremely tight," she said.
The Keystone Valley firefighters have gotten rid of unnecessary equipment and created more seamless cooperation during calls among firefighters from its three stations, they said.
Bit of rivalry
Bill Taggart, 63, has spent his whole life either fighting fires or working as an EMT. He grew up next to a fire house in Wagontown that his father helped start. Before pagers or cellphones, residents called the Taggart house to report fires. The family sounded the alarm to assemble the firefighters.
Taggart met his wife of 41 years, Barbara, at a horse show that was raising money for the Wagontown fire station. Taggart said he'd gotten busy the last few years with work and grandchildren, and didn't participate at the Atglen Fire Company as much as he used to.
The consolidation brought him back. He wanted to use his many years of experience to help.
"It's not easy putting those three fire companies together," he said. Firefighters are proud and territorial, and "there's a little bit of rivalry between the groups," he said.