LEWISBURG — When the emergency tones sound inside the William Cameron Engine Co., company employees climb aboard fire trucks and ambulances and respond in kind.
The station’s full-timers’ response is augmented by available volunteers.
In the Valley where all-volunteer departments have been the norm since the dawn of modern emergency services, William Cameron transitioned into the only local combination career-and-volunteer fire and ambulance squad.
“Typically, everyone here is accustomed to all-volunteer departments,” said Chief James Blount. “Unfortunately, there’s a decline in volunteerism nationwide which creates combination or all-paid departments.”
It was that decline that led to the shift at William Cameron. The ambulance service first brought on full-time staff in 1998. The fire service followed in 2005. Blount was hired in 2015 — the station’s first full-time chief.
“I think Chief Blount’s arrival and the hiring of a full-time chief of the department was that bold step over the line. We truly became a career department,” said Steve Bolinsky, company president and the station’s last volunteer chief.
New operating board
Though volunteers maintain administrative control, that’s also on the verge of change as a new intergovernmental agreement will hand over the administrative operation to a board made up of municipal appointees.
Lewisburg Borough and the townships of Buffalo, East Buffalo and Kelly are forming Central Susquehanna Regional Fire and Emergency Services operating board. The board will handle oversight of William Cameron.
William Cameron’s budget is about $1.5 million. The bulk of its operational revenue comes from medical calls. About 8 in 10 dispatches are medical; the remaining filled by fires and traffic accidents and such.
Lewisburg and East Buffalo Township assess a fire protection tax to supplement operations. Buffalo and Kelly townships don’t have a specific tax but make a financial contribution.
Fund drives and donations support the budget, too.
West Chillisquaque had also paid in under the outgoing model. Rather than continuing as a full-time member, township supervisors voted to pay by the incident. The structure for those charges hasn’t been settled.
There are 19 paid positions and aside from the administrative assistant, all are emergency response jobs, cross-trained in fire and EMS. There are currently two openings.
They responded to 3,200 calls in 2016, a figure Blount said is rising by about 200 annually.
The station has 31 “active” volunteers — defined by Blount as anyone who’s responded to a call in the past six months. Some are Bucknell University students.
About a dozen volunteers are trained to fight fires from inside a burning building, Bolinsky said, adding other volunteers help with administrative matters.
Capt. Harold J.R. Erdley was a longtime volunteer at the station. Nine years ago, he was hired full time. He watched recently as Joe Mitchell, a firefighter/EMT hired in December, rolls up an old 5-inch, 100-foot rubber hose he’ll use for a training exercise.
Volunteers long had a lot to do at the station. Now, not so much, Erdley said.
The nature of the job allows for downtime, which full-timers use for routine work — washing trucks, cleaning equipment, even mowing grass on the lawn outside the station.
“We’re doing the stuff volunteers might otherwise do,” Erdley said.
The transition from a volunteer department to a career department was difficult, Bolinsky said. Some members left for other departments. Other members felt marginalized. The social element felt undermined.
“There was that feeling of losing control,” Bolinsky said. “There’s that feeling of insignificance and you don’t have anything to offer.”
As William Cameron carries on and as its administrative structure evolves, Bolinsky said maintaining a volunteer portion is important, and not only for historical value. There are volunteers trained and certified and as proficient as a full-time employee, he said.
“We can bolster our level of service with more volunteerism,” Bolinsky said. “If we can get six to eight volunteers to an accident and couple that with four to six paid personnel, that’s a really strong complement.”
“Our volunteerism is low. There’s no hiding behind that. That’s why we’re where we’re at,” he said.
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