The Chambersburg Fire Department had a better year financially than expected, but planning is necessary to help the department work through struggles that will likely get worse over the coming years, Fire Chief Dustin Ulrich recently told Chambersburg Borough Council.
Ulrich was among the department heads council heard from last week ahead of the development of the borough’s budget for 2024. Council has until Dec. 31 to adopt the financial document.
Here are some key points from Ulrich’s presentation.
Most calls are non-fire emergencies
The Chambersburg Fire Department expects to receive about 5,780 calls by the end of the year, according to the report.
About 75% are related to emergencies other than fires, such as car crashes and medical emergencies.
The number of non-fire calls will be slightly down by the end of 2023, according to a projection. The year is on course to end up with just more than 4,350 calls. There were more than 4,500 the previous two years.
“The demand for emergency medical services continues to strain the CFD primary ambulance with more emergency transports from nursing and medical facilities,” Ulrich’s report states.
The borough department provides basic life support. Advanced life support operations transitioned late this summer to WellSpan Health’s WellFlight from Penn State Life Lion, a change Ulrich described as still being worked through.
Ulrich estimated the fire department will end 2023 with about 1,380 calls — just more than last year and well over the 880 calls in 2021.
Finances turning out better than expected
Like the police department, the fire department was expected to operate on a deficit in 2023. However, Ulrich said department leaders have been able to keep expenditures below what was budgeted.
“Our current budget looks to be on point. We were a little worried at the beginning of the year with the increase in the cost of everything,” the chief said. “We were able to manage some things with our training budget and our maintenance and operations budget at the McKinley Street and Headquarters (North Second Street) stations, so we’re right on point to actually probably be a little bit under.”
Ulrich added that the switch to 24-hour shifts from 12-hour shifts has helped with scheduling and to lower overtime.
The fire and ambulance department was expected to be about $1,323,405 in the red, with total expenditures of $5,670,265, according to the 2023 budget. About $4.36 million of that is for firefighter wages and benefits.
The fire department’s budget is funded by a combination of tax dollars, fees and a state grant.
While Borough Council could choose to raise taxes to better fund the police department — which has a tax rate of 25 mills in 2023, a large portion of the borough’s 32.5-mill property tax rate — the borough already levies the state-maximum fire tax of three mills (one-half mill goes to EMS).
According to the borough’s figures, the average homeowner will pay $52.53 toward the fire tax — compared to $437.78 toward the police tax.
The 2023 budget estimated the fire tax would bring in $677,495; however, by law, all but $114,760 must go to the state’s Motor Equipment Fund. The fire department also receives $1,266,700 from ambulance fees, which is a $9.50/month fee that residents pay as a surcharge on their water bills, and $1,395,700 from other ambulance bills.
The fire department is also struggling with receiving far less than it anticipated from PA Fire Recovery, a program that reimburses departments for qualifying events. Since going into effect in September 2022, the fire department has received $9,830 for 21 incidents, despite submitting 116. About 18% of the department’s calls have been reimbursed, compared to the approximately 48% reimbursement rate PA Fire Recovery described.
Ulrich said the department is evaluating the situation to determine why there has been such a discrepancy and looking at similar programs to determine if a change should be made.
The emergency services side is more financially stable, according to Ulrich, with about $300 in revenue per call ($765,049.14 and 2,542 calls overall, through July 31). However, due to federal regulations, EMS had to write off more than $1.075 million already this year.
Police chief:Chambersburg PD needs more money to keep up service
Struggles are expected to grow for fire and EMS headed into the future
Right now there is one open part-time position in Chambersburg on the EMS side, but the growing community and the need for a second 24/7 ambulance necessitates additional staff in the future, according to Ulrich’s report.
The second full-time ambulance — which first came up for consideration 13 years ago — would help the borough’s department assist with more calls, obtain additional revenue from ambulance billing, have more personnel for firefighting operations, and allow the borough to provide consistent service — which can be a challenge when other departments must respond.
However, it would also require hiring additional staff.
If the borough’s one 24/7 ambulance is in use at another call and the other two are not in service, another department must respond if there is a call. Not only does that count as a “missed call” for Chambersburg, but the other company’s ambulance being out of that area could become a problem if an incident were to happen there.
The number of “missed calls” handled by mutual aid has been on the rise. There were 1,264 in 2021, 1,528 in 2022, and 1,567 are estimated for 2023, according to Ulrich’s report.
Here are some other highlights about challenges for the fire and emergency department:
- Call volume is increasing, and returns are not meeting industry needs to cover costs.
- Local volunteer departments have long been struggling to recruit, which affects Chambersburg’s ability to respond to calls.
- Many emergency medical technicians are not getting recertified.
Looking ahead, Ulrich shared some short- and long-term goals.
In the next one to three years, the department wants to develop “new entry level physical agility testing to better match and evaluate functional fitness levels,” and begin the process to replace the McKinley Street station.
Goals for the next four to eight years include:
- increasing staffing levels to cover for decreases among volunteer departments, and expanding supervisory staff;
- transitioning to Advanced Life Support services;
- starting the process of renovating the Headquarters Fire Station on North Second Street;
- evaluate the need for a third 24/7 ambulance.
Comprehensive plan:‘Imagine Franklin 2035’ aims to make growing Franklin County a better place to live
By helping the community, Chambersburg FD helps itself
The fire department receives about $60,000 a year by conducting fire inspections at businesses in the borough. Ulrich said it is a program that works, as most of the fires the department respond to are residential structures and caused by things such as cooking, smoking and burning candles.
“I’m a firm believer that fire inspections are second to none and they really do help the community out and allow those businesses to stay in business without having a major catastrophe,” Ulrich said.
The fire department’s work helped save $936,435 in damage costs, compared to $415,815 in losses. Ulrich contributed it to having 24/7 on-duty staff, a four-minute average response time and training.
“The fire loss is much higher in townships that do not have a fire code,” Ulrich said.
Chambersburg Fire Department personnel also participate in a number of programs on topics such as smoke detector use, child safety seats, what to do in case of a medical emergency and more. Not only do these programs educate citizens on how to prevent negative outcomes, but they also have a positive influence on the number and type of calls that come into the fire department.
One of the biggest risk reduction efforts is the smoke detector installation program. With the “Sound the Alarm, Save a Life” program through the American Red Cross, the fire department has installed more than 800 smoke detectors in the borough since 2018 — which is among the highest on the East Coast, according to Ulrich.
The department does at least one outreach effort a year. In 2023 the fire department visited homes in neighborhoods along Stouffer Avenue.
“We had a fire there the beginning of the year so we wanted to make sure that everyone was protected,” Ulrich said.
Ulrich estimated that more than 1,500 residents will have attended one of the free fire safety education programs by the end of the year.
Ulrich also highlighted the “Stop the Bleed, Save a Life” program, which educates Chambersburg Area School District teachers and borough citizens on how to use a tourniquet to prevent an injured person from losing too much blood.
Through August, the fire department:
- conducted 403 fire inspections
- issued 220 fire business operation permits
- installed 99 car seats
- installed 298 smoke alarms
- and installed 122 carbon monoxide detectors.
Amber South can be reached at email@example.com.