$60,000 + $75,000 + $80,000. And counting.
The coronavirus pandemic has blown a nearly quarter-million-dollar hole into the combined 2020 budgets of Shippensburg’s three fire companies, an impact that will be felt beyond this year.
Vigilant Hose Co., Cumberland Valley Hose Co. and West End Fire and Rescue Co., which together comprise the Shippensburg Fire Department, are among the front-line defenders working to tamp down the coronavirus locally and across Pennsylvania. They also are among those affected significantly by measures the commonwealth enacted this spring to curb the pandemic.
“We supported the steps the state took in March to control the spread of the coronavirus,” said Greg Coy, president of Vigilant Hose Co. “But we can’t ignore the reality of how that impacted us financially.”
The three all-volunteer companies — like thousands of others throughout the country — depend heavily on donations to fund their operations. Between 65 percent and 75 percent of their budgets come from such fundraising activities such as bingo nights, ticket sales for meals and drawings, and small games of chance, along with annual fund drives conducted by mail.
The losses began mounting immediately after stay-at-home and school and business closure orders took effect in Pennsylvania in mid-March. For example:
-- Vigilant and CV had to halt their bingo nights, which also meant the loss of revenue from small games of chance they hold during bingo.
-- Vigilant held its spring gun drawing virtually on Facebook, losing out on additional small games of chance revenue.
-- West End canceled one raffle and lost money from several other events in which it would have participated that also were canceled.
All three had to postpone major one-day fundraisers until later this summer or fall.
“We just started selling tickets for our event when the stay-at-home order and the business closures went into effect,” noted Paul Hutchison, president of West End Fire & Rescue.
In addition, and not unexpectedly, once business closures were implemented, donations to CV’s and West End’s annual fund drives are down from 2019. Vigilant’s fund drive mailing went out this month.
The losses put a long-term problem into sharp focus. Volunteers spend far more time on fundraising than on answering emergency calls, training, apparatus and building maintenance and other tasks. Coy said Vigilant’s members tallied 6,000 hours on fundraising last year.
Company officers are concerned that even if they are able to hold their rescheduled events, the numbers will be down because people may be hesitant to attend. “We don’t know whether people will still come out to our drawings,” said Bill Helm, CV Hose president.
“Same with bingo,” added Bobby Van Scyoc, Vigilant treasurer. “For the most part, the people who come to bingo every week are older. Are they going to continue coming out? The crowds are getting smaller every year anyway. This is certainly going to impact the numbers even more.”
Randy O’Donnell, chief of the Shippensburg Fire Department, said emergency services have used the same model for many years to sustain quality services in the community. However, he said the model just isn’t working anymore, and the coronavirus has exposed this reality.
He noted the fire department used to receive a large chunk of funds from its mail-in campaign. However, in recent years, contributions from the campaign have gone down to just 7 to 10 percent. He added the all-volunteer organization has lost some manpower and the model just doesn’t work with less people.
“It’s been a broken system for some time,” he said.
“We are putting more hours into fundraising than we are into training,” O’Donnell noted, adding the fire service raises most of its funds through events that feature alcohol and gambling. “Emergency services really shouldn’t be in that business.”
The Shippensburg Fire Department has sent letters to local legislators and senators in hopes of receiving some state or federal monies to help offset the lost revenue due to the virus.
They also thanked the legislators for their work on securing state grants for the department and other emergency services providers.
O’Donnell said they can only keep this up for so long. A fire truck in 1990 cost about $150,000. The last one they purchased cost more than $600,000, and a new rescue squad would cost close to $1 million. He said the department is also in the process of upgrading radio equipment for both Cumberland and Franklin counties, which will cost roughly $500,000. The fire department has also held off on replacing a 25-year-old rescue squad because of the financial situation.
O’Donnell said every community has been discussing these issues over the past few years.
“We are going to have to have more cooperation with the local government and the fire service,” O’Donnell said. “It’s hard to reach out to the community when they are suffering the same thing. People are out of jobs, civic clubs have been closed for four months. Everyone is in the same boat, but we need to figure out how to sustain emergency services for years to come.
Where the fire service is lacking today, it’s a national problem.
I am really good right now to sustain the service, but finding people to take on management roles and administrative duties is tough. It’s a culture change and we have to find a new way to adapt.”
O’Donnell said the partnership between CV Hose Co. and Vigilant Hose Co. has saved the department money with a reduction in apparatus. He said they may have to cut back on community outreach programs to also help reduce costs. With the virus, they are going to have to determine whether or not they can conduct fire safety programs in the schools.
“EMS is suffering a lot of the same things. Their call volumes are down. It’s a struggle. We have been fortunate because we have great relationships with the local government and community organizations.”
O’Donnell said it is going to take a community effort to find a balance to get things back on track.
“We are still going to do our best to maintain quality services, and make necessary changes where we need to,” he added.
Managing Editor Denise Bonura contributed to this article.