HomeBensalem TimesBensalem’s six legacy volunteer fire departments unite as one

Bensalem’s six legacy volunteer fire departments unite as one

Council members unanimously passed a resolution to form the Bensalem Volunteer Fire Department

A momentous evening: Council members Michelle Benitez, Ed Kisselback and Joseph Knowles, along with Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo, smile with the newly-elected leaders of the Bensalem Volunteer Fire Department. Source: Bensalem Township

The six legacy volunteer fire companies of Bensalem Township are officially becoming one.

During a special meeting last Monday evening, council members unanimously approved a resolution to consolidate Cornwells, Eddington, Newport, Nottingham, Trevose and Union into the Bensalem Volunteer Fire Department. 

“The reason consolidation of our six current fire companies is necessary is a significant decrease in the number of volunteer firefighters, the inability to adequately staff each firehouse and, most importantly, the need to ensure an effective fire response to all emergencies,” said director of public safety Bill McVey.

In the ‘70s, the total number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania was estimated to be 300,000. By the early 2000s, that total dropped to 60,000 and currently sits at under 40,000. Bensalem has felt this decline firsthand, with the six companies struggling in recent years to adequately staff their trucks.

Ron Harris, who boasts 43 years of volunteer firefighting experience with Newport and is the deputy fire chief of the BVFD, stressed that each of the six companies will retain their respective stations — and all of their history and traditions, some dating 100 years. 

“We’re one large volunteer fire department with multiple stations,” he explained. “So we’re still providing that same coverage out of those firehouses for the community, but under one set of rules, one leadership group, to provide everything uniformly across the township.” 

Discussions surrounding consolidation were initially held in the late ‘80s, and again in 2010, but nothing came to fruition. That is, until McVey took office in January 2022, and was immediately approached by leadership from three of the volunteer fire companies, all with the same message: uniting as one was necessary and overdue, as understaffed trucks and delayed responses could spell disaster. 

“The message that resonated most with me was, failure to not consolidate would result in a catastrophic incident involving destruction of property and, at worst case, a loss of life,” said McVey.

With the support of Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo and the council, McVey and deputy director of public safety Robert Race held regular meetings and conversations over the following two and a half years, allowing all volunteer firefighters of Bensalem the chance to express their thoughts and concerns. The services of ROBB Consulting were hired and a consolidation committee was formed, with two representatives from each of the six companies selected to participate. 

“As you can imagine, this was no easy task, and it involved many roadblocks, varied opinions and many false accusations about jeopardizing public safety in this township,” said McVey.

In the end, the final vote for consolidation was an overwhelming 156-6 in favor to move forward with it. A formal resolution was signed by leadership from all six, authorizing and directing their companies to join and form the newly-incorporated BVFD. The only remaining steps include obtaining final approvals from the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office.

Moving forward, Harris will work alongside Mark Antozzeski, who in February was appointed as the township’s first-ever career fire chief, to ensure the community receives seamless service from both the BVFD (nights and weekends) and the paid Bensalem Fire Rescue (working hours, Monday through Friday). 

“We’re gonna have one mission. We’re gonna have one set of objectives that we’re gonna move forward, and that’s to protect the community,” said Antozzeski. “Whether you wear a career patch or volunteer patch, it doesn’t matter. We work together for the community.” 

Low numbers: The six legacy fire companies of Bensalem consolidated due to dwindling volunteers. Source: Bensalem Township

During the council meeting, in addition to Harris’ appointment as deputy fire chief, several other leaders of the BVFD were sworn in. They include Andrew Hazlett, a Newport volunteer of 25 years as president, and Tom Markert, an Eddington volunteer of 37 years, as vice president.

Markert explained that, in order to preserve Bensalem’s dwindling volunteer fire services and not place the burden of a fully paid company on the taxpayers, this union — and shedding the longstanding feeling of “tribalism” — was vital.

“We’re breaking those barriers down now,” he said. “The fluidity or the ability to be able to respond or volunteer to the closest station is going to be one of the things that is going to help us succeed as an organization moving forward.”

Plus, the six companies will now be able to share resources. For example, if one has a lack of hoses and another has a surplus, that equipment can move within the BVFD network because it’s all one entity.

“It’s been a long struggle. It’s been a hard thing,” said DiGirolamo of the past two and a half years. “[But] safety is the No. 1 thing that we swear to. When we win an election, that is what we swear to: the safety of this community. And by doing this, I feel as though we are going in the right direction.”

Markert put out a call for more volunteers because, even in its unified state, the BVFD can always use more: “The worst day of [a resident’s] life, we’re there to try and keep it from getting any worse. We can’t make it better, but we can keep it from getting worse. So if you think that you are able to answer that call, we need you and we want you.”

Those interested in joining the BVFD can email membership@bensalemvfd.org

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com

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