Acting in what Whitehall Borough Public Safety Committee Chair Robert McKown said is in the best interest of its taxpayers, the Whitehall Council approved a policy on Wednesday night that calls for other municipalities to pay for Whitehall Fire Company service should they need it—but not in all cases.
Up until the policy was passed on Wednesday by a 6-0 vote—Councilman Harold Berkoben was absent—Whitehall's volunteer fire company would always respond to emergencies in neighboring municipalities free of charge when those municipalities' fire companies either needed help or were not able to respond themselves at all.
But now, in cases when two specific things both occur—(1) Whitehall Fire is the primary responder for another municipality and (2) the emergency happens during regular weekday hours (between 7 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.)—Whitehall would charge the other municipality for its service.
In accordance with a statewide mutual aid agreement, Whitehall will continue to not charge for emergency service (no matter what time of day) when it is a secondary responder to an incident. For example, should Whitehall's firefighters go to an incident in Brentwood Borough on a Monday at noon to assist's Brentwood's already-present firefighters, there would be no charge.
Whitehall will also continue to not charge for emergency service when that service is called for on weekends or during evening hours—even when Whitehall is the primary responder—since that service does not disrupt normal weekday work within Whitehall.
Why? It's because multiple Whitehall firefighters also work for the borough's Public Works department, and emergencies during evenings and on weekends do not interfere with the firefighters' normal weekday Public Works schedule.
Weekday emergencies between 7 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., however, do interfere with those Public Works hours, and Whitehall would charge neighboring municipalities $150 mobilization fees in those instances, as well as $40 per hour fees for each responding firefighter who is also an on-duty borough employee.
"For a year now, we did some analysis on the number of (Whitehall) fire calls," McKown said. "There happened to be 31 in Brentwood. Nineteen of those 31 happened to be during working hours.
"So, (Whitehall firefighters) are leaving their duties here in the borough as road crew and going to respond to these fires.
"If they're off their duties here at Public Works, then we need to be reimbursed for those costs because those gentlemen are being paid (during work hours) whether they're doing Public Works or fire calls."
No one is paid to be a firefighter-only in Whitehall, McKown confirmed in an interview after Wednesday's council meeting, but multiple Whitehall firefighters do hold paid jobs on the borough's Public Works staff.
"Essentially, that's our paid (fire) force," McKown said.
Fellow Whitehall Councilman Philip Lahr, a longtime fireman, was empathetic to other neighboring volunteer fire companies' recruiting challenges, particularly in Brentwood, but still supported Whitehall's new policy.
"I really believe that we have to move forward," Lahr said, "because we've been on many calls where we were the only ones there.
"They (Brentwood Volunteer Fire Company) have difficulty at times, and it's sad that they have that. They were the 'mother' company for Whitehall when Whitehall first started (fire service) in 1946, so it's difficult to pull that out. But they have to be able to figure out a way to solve that."
Whitehall Councilwoman Kathleen N. DePuy pointed out that, should the current trend of fire calls remain the same over the next year, Brentwood would only be on the hook for around $5,000 in Whitehall reimbursement.
"Does that solve anything?" DePuy asked before eventually agreeing to the new policy. "Is that going to force Brentwood into doing anything? That's a cheap outlet for them. Are we going to be creating a problem in the long run?"
"At this point, we don't know," he said. "This is new ground. This is a new venture. Until we see how this works, and if it gets to a point where they don't bother calling their fire department out at all and relying on us, then maybe we do need to revisit the fees and start charging (more).
"We didn't want to be detrimental. We wanted to make sure we covered our cost and, at least, make them aware that this is an issue that has to be addressed.
"This might be the very first beginning of either a paid fire department or the consolidation of fire departments."
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