Harkins: For a stronger public safety response, is it time to combine forces?

Sometimes, all it takes is a personal experience to underscore the urgency of a problem.

My wife, Michelle, and I were driving home a few nights ago and were just outside the city limit when Michelle suddenly shouted to pull over, pointing to a house with flames billowing out of the side. We rushed to the entrance, where a distressed and disoriented young woman who lived there told us there was an elderly man inside. I called 911 and headed in to find him.

Heavy smoke made it difficult to see, but I could hear him in the distance and made my way over. Barefoot and disoriented, he resisted leaving at first, saying he had to find his prescription medications, but he allowed me to grab him and get him out the door.

Outside, Michelle was comforting the young woman, and we brought her and the homeowner into our car to wait for the firefighters. The homeowner – an 85-year-old organ transplant recipient, was still distressed about his prescription medicines. By the time firetrucks arrived 12 to 14 minutes later, fire had consumed a good portion of the home.

The firefighters – volunteers from a nearby station – acted quickly to extinguish the fire, and the homeowner was relieved to see two of them emerge carrying several trays of prescription medications. A neighbor couple arrived to help, and later, a priest offered the displaced occupants a place to stay at the local rectory.

The night could have ended much differently had it not been for Michelle’s sharp eye. But when seconds count, we can’t always rely on chance. We need a solution that improves the response time for these communities, and for that, we may need to explore the idea of combining our forces.  

Industry standard

The industry standard for firefighting – NFPA 1710 – says that firetrucks should arrive on the scene of a residential hose fire within four minutes of being called and that a minimum of 15 firefighters should be dispatched. Although different departments have established their own protocols, all are based on multiple studies showing that crew size and arrival times directly impact lives and property saved.

In this instance, it took 12 to 14 minutes for crews to arrive.

It isn’t that the volunteers lacked competency, dedication or a sense of urgency. It’s simply that there were too few of them available to respond instantly. Every county in Pennsylvania is facing the same crisis-level shortage of volunteers, and the numbers are only going in the wrong direction.

A report by the Senate Resolution 6 Commission, which was created to study and address the problem, identified a dramatic decline in the number of Pennsylvania’s volunteer first responders – from about 300,000 in the 1970s to as few as 38,000 in 2018.

In some ways, the consequences of this crisis are obvious. Prolonged response times directly endanger our most vulnerable residents – those in outlying areas with limited mobility due to advanced age, illness or disability. They also threaten the lives of first responders, because a fire can grow 16 times larger in just three minutes.

And while the departments these volunteers serve lay outside city lines (Erie has a paid fire department), the threat posed by extreme staff shortages can threaten any resident facing an emergency while working or traveling beyond city lines.

Beyond the human toll, the longer response times have an impact on a fire department’s ISO rating – the score provided to fire departments and insurance companies by the Insurance Services Office. The score reflects how prepared a community is for fires, and a poor score translates to higher insurance rates for area homeowners and businesses.

Finally, the staffing shortages at volunteer departments can stress the city’s own paid department, because local VFDs must sometimes rely on the city to send reinforcements.

Time for a dialog

The SR6 Commission’s report recommended recruitment and retention methods to boost the declining ranks of volunteers, and in Harrisburg, we’re working to implement those. But they aren’t enough. We need other solutions that will help now. 

With the infrastructure already in place to do so, it may be time to start a dialog about creating a paid, countywide fire department and merging all safety providers, including fire, police, and EMS. Of course, any such conversation would need to start with – and be guided by – input from the police, fire, EMS and other public safety professionals who best understand the possibilities and pitfalls of such a plan. 

They could help us understand the feasibility of a unified county safety response agency and whether the potential safety, cost savings and manpower advantages would outweigh potential logistical and institutional problems. If they tell us a unified agency is unworkable, we should continue the dialog and solicit their ideas for alternative strategies.

Because the stakes involved – protecting the lives of our most vulnerable residents – are so high, it’s critical that we get this right. As a longtime public safety advocate who recently had an up-close-and-personal look at those stakes, I’m ready to come to the table and listen, and I hope the community will join me.

State Rep. Pat Harkins represents Pennsylvania’s 1st Legislative District.