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Community offers suggestions for volunteer fire departments

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry Conewango Township Supervisors (from left) Vince Duckett, David Gee, and Jeff Zariczny, Starbrick Volunteer Fire Department Chief Kirk Foust, and North Warren Volunteer Fire Department Chief Shawn Jones speak to a group of about 100 people gathered for a Save Our Fire Departments town hall meeting Wednesday at Starbrick.

For almost 70 years, the Starbrick Volunteer Fire Department has answered the call when residents need help.

There was a chance Wednesday for the residents to answer the department’s call.

Fire department officials recently told Conewango Township supervisors that their department was in danger of having to close. They decided to get as many ideas as they could to help save their fire department.

About 100 people showed up for a Save Our Fire Departments town hall meeting Wednesday night.

“We’re trying to come up with sustainable solutions for our residents to keep fire and EMS service,” Supervisor Jeff Zariczny said.

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry Barb McCullough, with the help of Chief Kirk Foust, signs up to be an associate member of the Starbrick Volunteer Fire Department following a Save Our Fire Departments meeting Wednesday night.

The ideas shared on Wednesday were heard by the county’s representatives in the state legislature. Both Rep. Kathy Rapp and Sen. Scott Hutchinson attended the meeting.

Chief Kirk Foust addressed the group, talking about the department’s history and his history with it.

The department incorporated in 1955.

Foust joined in 1988 as a junior firefighter and became chief in 2003.

The membership began to decline in 2010, he said. That situation grew worse in the last two years.

“Last year into this year, we’ve had a major decline in membership,” Foust said. “I have four or five interior firefighters and four or five EMTs.”

With so few members, the department can’t respond to every call.

“During the day, there are times when we are out of service,” he said.

“Our young guys are moving,” Deputy Chief Mike Noe said. “All of our manpower is going to work elsewhere.”

Starbrick is on an “automatic dispatch” agreement with North Warren Volunteer Fire Department, Foust said. Any time one station is called out, both respond.

North Warren does not face the same immediate membership issues.

“We have 31 active members, 14 interior firefighters,” North Warren Chief Shawn Jones said. “We can usually turn out eight to 10.”

But, closing Starbrick and letting North Warren handle its calls is not a reasonable solution. “It’s not as easy as one department taking over,” Jones said. “It’s a large township.”

“We’re looking for different ideas to make this a viable fire department for the future,” Noe said. “Maybe the idea you have here is going to help the county.”

Many of those in attendance were members of other departments. The membership concern is more pressing at Starbrick, but it is not an isolated problem.

Warren County Public Safety Director Ken McCorrison addressed the group, saying he had met with other departments and governments. “All of the discussions have centered around declining membership and lack of manpower — especially during the day,” he said.

“I think the solution has to be much bigger than Conewango Township,” Zariczny said.

McCorrison said many departments are holding on “with a very small core group” and that those core members “deserve our respect. Let’s support them.”

The township has to provide for the fire and EMS services for its residents.

One of the possibilities for doing that is to have a paid department. “That’s going to have a dramatic impact on each and every one of you,” Jones said to the taxpayers.

McCorrison said some agencies in the eastern part of the county are working together, pooling resources, and “are paying to have (EMS) resources in their area.”

There have also been efforts to bring in more volunteers. The township has tried to incentivize membership and has allocated dollars to the departments to help address membership issues. “We earmarked $10,000 for each department,” Zariczny said.

“We put that $10,000 toward recruitment,” Jones said.

The department is holding events, raising awareness, even buying signs.

Even with a membership in the 30s, North Warren is looking for more people.

“Our goal this year is to bring on two new members,” Jones said.

The department needs interior firefighters. That training is extensive — 166 hours.

But, the current firefighters are also handling managerial, financial, custodial, and other tasks in addition to fighting fires and handling EMS calls.

The township and the department hope that people who already have those skills will step up.

“We don’t have the manpower to run fundraisers,” Foust said. The department relies on payments received for its ambulance service for most of its funding.

“There are a lot of other things that need done around a fire department,” Supervisor David Gee said. “Come out and help.”

“Getting people in the door lets my guys do their job,” Jones said. He has found a volunteer photographer and public information officer. While those are not critical functions on a fire scene, “those are support roles that we can absolutely use.”

Someone willing to drive equipment to scenes or to work as fire police requires much less training (16 hours each) than an interior firefighter.

“Associate members can work fundraisers, provide leadership, be on the board of trustees, clean up,” Foust said. “Everything but get on a truck and go out the door.”

Starbrick needs help with all of those things.

“These are businesses,” Noe said. “They have books. We are all wearing two hats… or three. I didn’t go to school to learn how to run a business. You guys… your friends, neighbors, and co-workers, have that expertise. I would take any businessperson and plug you into administrative roles.”

Someone in the audience asked about the intrinsic motivations and rewards of being a volunteer.

“It’s a very tight-knit group — camaraderie plays into it a lot,” Jones said. “You know you’ve done a good job for your community.”

One of the suggestions from the crowd was to get that message out, to encourage people — especially young people — to belong, to find their purpose. “They’re looking to belong to something that’s real,” he said.

He also suggested that “good Samaritans” be encouraged to participate in responses to the extent that they are legally and physically able.

Another suggested that the department or the supervisors approach the Warren County Veterans Affairs office. “A lot of the veterans I talk to get a little lost in transition (from active duty to civilian life),” she said. Serving with a volunteer fire department might fill a need they feel for serving the community, structure, or belonging.

Jones liked that idea. “We are a paramilitary organization,” he said. “That’s how we’re structured.”

One of the suggestions was to share events and profits with other organizations. A group that has personnel, but not a large venue, might be willing to run Bingo and split profits with the department.

“I really want to thank Starbrick Volunteer Fire Department for hosting this town hall,” Zariczny said. “I’m very thankful for the help.”

“It went well,” Gee said. “We got some good ideas from people.”

“It’s a win already,” Foust said. In addition to several people signing interest forms on Wednesday, “we had four people come out last night for drill that picked up applications.”

While the organizers were pleased with the turnout for the meeting, they wanted to hear from more people.

“We found out that people had no idea that there was a need,” Gee said. “You don’t have to be a firefighter to be able to come in and relieve some of their stress.”

The supervisors asked those in attendance to spread the word that there will be another town hall meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 11, at the fire hall.

“If you can’t make it, at least tell people,” Gee said.

“Get the message out,” Zariczny said.

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