New Hanover officials made it clear at Monday night’s meeting that they want to move forward with a plan to reorganize the two fire departments into a single township-wide “fire and rescue system service.”
Passing a resolution by a unanimous vote, officials authorized solicitor Paul Bauer to prepare an ordinance to consolidate the two fire service organizations into one under the name New Hanover Township Fire and Rescue Services. The combined group would continue to serve from the two existing stations (New Hanover and Sassamansville). However, the group would consist of one set of members selecting one set of officers with required duties and goals. The action is in response to a fire assessment study performed by an independent consulting firm, Volunteer Fireman’s Insurance Service (VFIS). The township received a grant to perform the study, which was completed in 2010, that contained 21 recommendations on how to most efficiently operate a township-wide fire and rescue system service.
At the meeting, New Hanover Chief Phil Agliano and Sassamansville Chief Ray Strickland both agreed that action had already been taken on many of the 21 recommendations. One of them, developing standard operating guidelines (SOG) for both organizations was presented to the supervisors. The SOG’s were passed unanimously by the supervisors.
It was hailed by Agliano as a “living document that could change and grow with time.” However supervisors reminded him that any changes and recommendations would have to come back to township officials for approval.
When the subject turned to combining the services of two companies, concerns rose among nearly two dozen members and supporters of the Sassamansville Fire Company.
After Bauer read the resolution to begin the process of combining the services, Strickland voiced his concerns and objections to passing them without any guidelines on how it would be done. He also expressed his concern for the distribution of assets if a merger were to take place.
According to Strickland, New Hanover Fire Company “has recently incurred a debt of about $750,000 for the purchase of a new aerial truck and Sassamansville is debt free.”
Most of the supervisors were reportedly unaware of the debt-free status of the Sassamansville organization.
Attorney Bruce Baldwin, Esq. of Pottstown, representing Strickland and some of the members of the Sassamansville Fire Company, told the board that “Sometimes mergers work better on paper than in reality … if a merger is forced, some of the firefighters may end up going to other communities.”
Because of the location of the Sassamansville Fire Company, near the northern corner of the township, they draw on volunteers from New Hanover and neighboring Douglass (Montgomery and Berks Counties) and Upper Hanover townships.
Supervisor Douglas Muller, drawing a comparison a volunteer firefighter to that of a volunteer little league coach, asked “Why would they leave for another company? Isn’t it a matter of community loyalty … to serve the individual of the community first?”
Strickland responded that the suggested merger has “caused a divide that didn’t exist before in the companies.” According to reports, New Hanover Fire Company volunteers generally approve of the merged services plan while many Sassamansville volunteers do not.
Sassamansville volunteer and Hauseman Road resident William Pasqueal said, “As long as the merger is hanging over our head it’s hard to recruit and keep volunteers.”
Baldwin pointed out that the study reports on all the positive things about combining services but makes no mention of the negative points such as cost of a merger or the effect on the volunteers.
New Hanover Deputy Fire Chief Bill Moyer commented that if officials don’t follow the recommendations made in the study, “We would be losing an opportunity to make the fire service better … that sometimes tradition can impede progress.”
Supervisor David Brown added “We want a unifying process not a dividing process.”
As to how to implement the combined fire services, Supervisors’ Chairman Marty Dyas told the volunteers, “How you guys decide is up to you.”
After the passage of the resolution, Bauer was directed to draw up an ordinance for consideration at the Sept. 10 board of supervisors meeting.