Combined Response: Merged Chesco fire squad says it's working

Firefighter Nat Vazquez carries a hose during Drill Night on Friday with members of the Keystone Valley Fire Department in Parkesburg. The unit also serves Pomeroy and Atglen.
Firefighter Nat Vazquez carries a hose during Drill Night on Friday with members of the Keystone Valley Fire Department in Parkesburg. The unit also serves Pomeroy and Atglen. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 21, 2014

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.

It's a work in progress, but everyone is coming together, said Danny O'Connell, who joined Keystone Valley during the merger and also volunteers at the West Grove Fire Company.

"We all have the same goals: to help protect lives and save property," he said.

O'Connell, 27, is a third-generation firefighter and rode alongside his father for years. He remembers one of his first calls seven years ago as a member of Sweet Valley Volunteer Fire Company in northeast Pennsylvania.

It was a warm fall afternoon. The sun was setting as his truck pulled up to the house, where two young boys and their parents stood out front as a fire destroyed their home.

"I heard a kid say, 'Our dog is in there,' " he said. When O'Connell and his fellow firefighters opened the basement door out back, they could hear the panicked barking of the small family pet, which was shaking in its crate. O'Connell handed the dog out the door, where the little boys waited.

"Even though they lost a lot of their belongings, they still have their pet," O'Connell said. "I take pride in that."

He said the combined Keystone Valley department can protect its community better than could the individual companies, calling himself "a huge proponent of consolidation."

One name

Higher levels of government take notice when local organizations come together. Grants are easier to get when agency officials see that multiple municipalities stand to benefit, Costa said.

Steve Cole Jr., the Avondale Fire Company chief, said his department has enough volunteers to get by and is not considering combining with another company. But it recently partnered with the Longwood Fire Company to get a grant to help with marketing, recruitment, and small payments to volunteers.

Gov. Corbett gave a "Local Government Excellence" award for intergovernmental cooperation last year to the municipalities and companies that make up the Keystone Valley Regional Fire District.

At a recent training session at a dilapidated house near the department's central Parkesburg station, some of the firefighters' clothing still said "Parkesburg" or "Pomeroy" or "Atglen." But others bore the initials of the new department. As the company replaces its gear, it will continue to change the stitching, Stackhouse said, until everyone is united under one name.



active volunteers in the Keystone Valley Fire Department.


parttime firefighters/EMTs at Keystone Valley.


square miles plus of western Chesco served by Keystone Valley.


percentage of decrease of volunteer firefighters nationwide since 1984.

610-313-8207 @MichaelleBond

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