Residents of a Dauphin County community are hoping leaders make the right choice when deciding the future of the borough’s fire department.
Paxtang Borough is considering offers to contract out its volunteer fire company to one of two neighboring townships, Swatara Township or Harrisburg. Borough officials say the decision is prompted by a lack of volunteers at Paxtang’s only fire station on Derry Street.
By law, the borough is responsible for providing fire services to residences and businesses, said Keldeen Stambaugh, borough superintendent. She said the declining trend in volunteer firefighters means officials need to face up to their responsibilities and look at other options.
The question has sparked debate among some of the borough’s 1,650 residents who have started a petition on Change.org to preserve the Paxtang Fire Hall and contract with Harrisburg. As of June 15, the petition is approaching the 100 signature mark.
Residents say the Swatara Township Volunteer Service is farther away and response times would be slower than the Harrisburg Fire Department, which pays its firefighters. They also expressed concern that Swatara Township is closing the Paxtang Fire Station.
“City of Harrisburg staff PAID 24/7 firefighters who would be on your side promptly for every emergency call and GUARANTEED your LOCAL volunteer fire station to remain in our community to respond when you need them,” the petition reads.
Rebecca Frankenfield of Paxtang, who started the petition, said she had several concerns. She said Swatara’s response times don’t even come close to those of the city with a staffed fire department. She said Swatara Township had discussed in meetings the need for paid fire truck drivers.
Swatara Fire Chief Michael Ibberson offered the township to hire at least three part-time fire truck drivers, according to township meeting minutes.
Additionally, the township scrapped the Lawnton Fire Company in 2018 after allegations that members were bullying other members of the company, including using racial slurs. This company was about 1 1/2 miles from Paxtang.
“I really think anything that isn’t reliable service for residents is bad service for every person in this community,” Frankenfield said.
Paxtang Fire Department Captain Matt Lemmon said closing the Paxtang Fire Station would put the department’s volunteer positions at risk. Lemmon said he believes the city of Harrisburg will continue to use Paxtang’s fire station and volunteers.
“Our firefighters would prefer a contract with the city of Harrisburg because whatever happens to our fire company, it will provide residents with better protection,” he said.
Stambaugh declined to share details related to the proposed contracts, except to say both would require the borough to pay a fee and allow volunteer firefighters to continue serving. She said the borough’s public safety committee will present the findings of those bids at the next borough council meeting on June 21.
The board decided about 18 months ago to research options, she said. Several years ago, the borough disbanded its police department and contracted services with the Swatara Police Department, a move that Stambaugh said proved both successful and cost-effective.
Lemmon said Paxtang operates with about six active firefighters and responds to between 340 and 350 calls a year, ranging from vehicle accidents to fires. Of those calls, about 60 are in the borough, Stambaugh said.
“It’s personal to them. We look at the stats and the service and what we’re able and obligated to deliver. We go with facts,” Stambaugh said.
Paxtang is not alone. Across Pennsylvania, the number of volunteer firefighters has plummeted in recent decades, from 360,000 in 1975 to about 30,000 in 2021, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council and the state Department of Community and Economic Development. .
Harrisburg Fire Bureau Chief Brian Enterline, who would not comment directly on Harrisburg’s bid, said that in areas such as central Pennsylvania, a mix of career and volunteer businesses is necessary to guarantee fire protection. He added that Harrisburg has always been a leader in helping others and appreciates the help the city receives from surrounding municipalities.
However, the needs, Enterline said, have certainly increased over the past decade.
“The fire protection that has always been career firefighters in these areas is stepping up to provide proper and adequate protection in the absence of volunteers,” he said.