HomeBensalem TimesBensalem firefighters sound alarm over dwindling volunteers

Bensalem firefighters sound alarm over dwindling volunteers

There is a call for more paid career first responders to come to residents’ rescue during the day

Dire straits: Bensalem director of public safety William McVey stresses the need for more paid career firefighters in the township. Source: Bensalem Township YouTube

Tom Markert, a volunteer firefighter of 37 years in Bensalem Township, is tired.

At the age of 59, this longtime first responder with Eddington Fire Company believes it’s time to hang up his hat, for his sake and the community’s. 

“Should I be who the township depends upon to crawl down a center hallway of an apartment building? I don’t think so. I think that our residents deserve better,” he said during the November meeting of the Bensalem council. 

The only issue is, there aren’t many aspiring volunteer firefighters at the door of Eddington — nor any of the other five fire companies in the township — ready and willing to take his place. This is why William McVey, director of public safety, requested council approval in October to apply for a SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant through FEMA. 

Such funding, he said, would allow the hiring of four full-time, paid career firefighters. They’d join Bensalem Fire Rescue — the township’s only career fire department that currently has eight firefighters — and supplement the work of the volunteer departments, which often struggle to maintain adequate staffing during daytime hours. 

“They are not getting trucks out during the day the way they did in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s,” said McVey. “With the decrease in the number of volunteers, the increase in calls for service that our paid career staff are going on on a daily basis. We need more staff to keep our residents safe.”

Council vice president Joseph Pilieri, a former volunteer with Union and Eddington fire companies, expressed concern over the SAFER grant. Under the impression that the National Fire Protection Association would force Bensalem to hire an average of one paid firefighter for every 1,500 or 1,800 residents (totaling 65 firefighters), he questioned where that kind of funding would come from. A heated discussion ensued.

McVey returned for the November council meeting (Pilieri was absent) in an effort to set the record straight. He, as well as Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo, stressed that the NFPA doesn’t have this type of authority. Plus, Bensalem Fire Rescue has been operating for 13 years with no issues. 

“This information is not factual at all,” said McVey. “The NFPA is a nonprofit organization that develops fire, electrical and other lifesaving standards. The NFPA is not a governing body. They have no power, nor do they try to enforce any of their standards if they’re non-compliance.” 

McVey received council approval to apply for the SAFER grant, but, even if awarded, it’s only a temporary fix. In addition to Markert, a number of volunteer firefighters attended the November meeting to make their voices heard. All echoed the same sentiment: There’s not enough of them to keep residents safe. 

John Izak, a volunteer firefighter in Bensalem for 38 years and current assistant chief at Nottingham, candidly explained how a five or 10-year plan needs to be crafted on the issue: “This is far beyond what you’re discussing now. We are in dire straits.” 

Izak added that this isn’t a Bensalem-only problem. Neighboring municipalities are competing for those same SAFER funds and career firefighters because they’re experiencing the same thing. He used an incident from November 2013 — when a tanker truck caught on fire along Route 13 at 9:30 a.m. — to stress the importance of paid firefighters. Thanks to the quick response of Bensalem Fire Rescue, the fire was kept in check and the tanker didn’t blow up, which would’ve been a major catastrophe. 

Thomas Prociuk, vice president of Bensalem Career Firefighters IAFF Local #4837, said, “Safe staffing is the most critical element of a firefighting force. We cannot delay the inevitable. The eroding of the volunteer fire service is standing before you today.”

McVey is in talks with all six volunteer companies about consolidating. All would maintain their individual identities; they’d just be under one umbrella. Don Harris, a career and volunteer firefighter of 57 years, voiced his support of the initiative. As independent companies, he said, they’re not producing enough manpower to keep the community safe.

Ultimately, McVey and many Bensalem firefighters are looking for the current setup to adapt to modern times, and rely more heavily on paid first responders. 

No longer can the local pharmacist or baker drop what they’re doing at work and attend to a fire up the street, as was the case for volunteer firefighters of the past. Now, they may work in a neighboring township, city or state, sometimes multiple jobs, and can’t hop on a truck during the day at the drop of a hat. As for being on call at night, younger individuals may not want such a responsibility after a long day of work, travel, family, etc., in addition to the intense training they’d have to undergo before being fully qualified. 

According to McVey, Bensalem Fire Rescue fills these gaps, but the current force can only do so much: “They’re doing a great job, but when you have two firefighters that can get hurt at a moment’s notice or more, we cannot staff our truck if one more was hurt. Guys couldn’t take off, we didn’t have enough. And to be honest, we’re going to have to expand our hours in the future as well, potentially weekends, with career staff firefighters to have a professional, timely response. We owe that to the township. The times have changed.” 

Looking ahead, McVey will have the SAFER grant application in by its due date in early 2024. He also intends to hire a fire chief, and will have the six volunteer companies vote for or against the consolidation. 

“This is being done not to eliminate our volunteer service. It’s being done to sustain it, to sustain it for the future so that we are not strapped with a fully funded fire department,” he said. “This is something that needs to be done that I have identified, experts have identified and the leadership from six of the volunteer companies have also identified. This is being done despite efforts to sabotage it, people trying to shut it down.”

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com

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