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EMS Task Force gets down to business

Warren County’s EMS Task Force is in full swing.

Warren County Commissioners officially created the task force two weeks ago and the force met for business Wednesday, October 16.

The force is comprised of individuals from organizations around the County including skilled nursing facilities, EMS agencies, fire agencies, municipal supervisors, 911 Center/Department of Public Safety and the Pa. Dept. of Community and Economic Development (DCED) appointed consult, Fire Chief Nick Sohyda.

“I tried my best to select people that are level headed, brought something to the table, were able to kind of speak for their organization and then make change,” said Ben Kafferlin, Warren County Commissioner, Chairman of the board and EMR with Spring Creek Township Fire Department.

Chief Sohyda has been appointed to consult with Warren County, and the Warren County Task Force, on its EMS crisis.

“I commend you for this, a lot of people are ignoring the problem,” said Chief Sohyda. “A lot of people just ignore it, the delivery of the system is not adequate and it’s just easier to turn a blind eye than do anything with it. This is the first time I’ve every been involved with a group quite on this scale that has the same interest.”

Chief Sohyda has been involved with Mt. Lebanon Fire Department since 1999 and fire chief since 2006, was involved with the volunteer fire services for 13 years prior to Mt. Lebanon and has been working with the DCED for 13 years.

He started out doing Act 47 intervention and recovery plans for the DCED and is now one of around three peer consultants in the western part of the state of Pa. that travels around to work with groups on consolidating their services and looking at how efficiently they’re operating.

The main focus of Wednesday evening’s meeting was to “spitball” ideas, discuss some possible solutions to be looked at and break into subcommittees for further research on particular subjects discussed.

“What I’d kind of like to do is do a ‘Shark Tank’ sort of angle,” said Kafferlin. “Subcommittees finding an idea that they think might be worth running with, vetting it, researching it then bringing it back to the body as a whole, pitch them and find a way that we can weight and prioritize them.”

One concern discussed was the decrease in volunteerism throughout the County, involving a lot of different underlying issues.

Societal change has played a role in volunteer decline. Children are involved in multiple sports or activities in school, both parents in the household are working, there is less of a sense of community, recent graduates tend to leave and those that stay have a lack of ambition or see it as “what’s in it for me.”

The amount of time commitment it takes to be a volunteer is another factor. By the time the proper certifications and trainings have been completed often times a year or two has past until the person can officially respond to calls.

The availability of training can also be a complication, locations may not be nearby and conflicts in scheduling may arise.

The time to respond to actual calls is time consuming, a lot of people are working full time jobs, if not multiple jobs to keep themselves financially afloat and don’t have the time.

There can be legal concerns with being a volunteer for firefighting or EMS services. There looms to possibility of being sued or malpractice.

Lack of leadership within the organizations can create issues. Backstabbing and hazing can cause volunteers to burn out and leave departments.

“Frequent flyers” or abuse of the 911 system, can also cause burn out within departments.

Lack of support after initial training can cause burnouts. For example, the average burn out time for new EMTs is three years and out.

Fundraising and funding volunteer departments has become an issue.

“[Volunteers] are already putting in 40 hours at a job and probably 20 more just in administration of their department and to assume they’re going to be able to coordinate fund drives and bingos, etc. is a fallacy. I think there needs to be an awareness that the funding model needs to change,” said Paul Pascuzzi, Clarendon Borough Council President, Clarendon Fire Department President and Chairman of the COG Fire Services.

It costs around $60,000 to $100,000 per year to run a small volunteer fire department in rural Pa.

“To fund that requires some support from the municipalities. Some municipalities do a really superb job of supporting them and others just ignore them,” said Pascuzzi.

“The volunteer fire service isn’t free, only the people are free, everything else still costs money,” said Chief Sohyda.

In 2007, House Bills 1131, 1133 and 1134 were passed notifying local governments, boroughs and first and second class townships that they have a responsibility to provide fire protection and EMS.

“They can provide a bucket brigade if they want, but legislation says that annually the local government must meet with fire and EMS to discuss how it’s being delivered and the quality of services and then decide what funding it gets,” said Chief Sohyda.

Volunteerism isn’t all about the funding though, awareness is key.

“Volunteerism has nothing to do with funding, it has everything to do with awareness that we have an issue and we have not done a very good job of going to the community and saying we need people to volunteer to do what we do. And we don’t do a very good job of explaining to the community the great stuff that we do and the stuff that we do do the time it takes out of our personal lives to do it,” said Pascuzzi.

Chief Soyhda said, “it’s pride. Volunteer firefighters and EMS people, they have a lot of pride and so we won’t tell people when we’re underperforming, that’s part of the problem. We have an issue and we need people. We don’t like to tell anyone we’re struggling because they call us to fix everything.”

Not only does Warren have an aging population, Warren has an aging volunteer population. The average age in Warren County is 57-years-old, the average age for a volunteer in Warren County is 52-years-old.

“We need to maintain our volunteer organizations across Warren County because we don’t have the tax base to support paid in all corners of our County, but we know that they need some support of some fashion,” said Pascuzzi.

“It dawned on me, there’s a certain stigma as it relates to volunteer firemen and I’m not sure why or how it got there, but there isn’t anyone in these small communities that isn’t an absolute gem for their community and they need to be recognized as such. No one volunteers to be a gem, no one volunteers to be recognized as a gem, they’re doing it because they know in their heart of hearts that it’s their community and if they didn’t do it then who else is going to do it. And if we don’t find people who have that heart for the community, then we’re going to be lost.”

Some solutions were discussed at the task force meeting such as cross-deputizing EMS providers, the possibility of scheduling people for a region, the flight car model, dual BLS and QRS agencies and providing them with jump kits, creating an ambulance authority and an agency announcing whether they are in or out of service.

Many other options and solutions were discussed at the meeting and the task force has broken into and recognized subcommittees.

The subcommittees will be separately meeting within the next couple of weeks and have been asked to, as a group, produce a written report that will be presented to the entire task force at the next meeting, Wednesday, November 6, 4 p.m., at the 911 Center. The report will include, but not limited to, relevant background and status quo, a description of the problem(s), proposed solution(s), a rough estimated timeline for implementation and a rough budget.

“There’s a lot of issues,” said Pascuzzi. “The fact of the matter is the general public doesn’t understand this yet, but they’re underserved in Warren County and that’s why we’re here and we need to find a way to make sure that those who need the services get them regardless of whether it’s paid or unpaid.”

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