Helping VFDs

ERIC PADDOCK

epaddock@timesobserver.com

For more than 100 years volunteer fire departments operated fairly independently, responding to emergencies in their local communities and relying on a steady source of manpower and funding.

They’re still responding 24-7, but the demands of training, finances and difficulty recruiting new members have taken a toll.

On Friday, Warren County’s Intergovernmental Cooperative – what most people know as the COG – showcased the results of years of study and development aimed at improving communication and cooperation among the county’s 20 fire departments and their cooperation with the public at large. The presentation gave C. Alan Walker, secretary of the state Department of Community and Economic Development, a detailed report on the Internet and intranet presence to which his department contributed $30,000.

Along with Walker were the county’s two legislative representatives and others who either were involved in the private financing or the development of warrencofire.org.

And when it was done, Walker, who was a charter member of the volunteer fire department in his Clearfield County community, expressed his astonishment at the finished product. Calling it “incredible,” Walker said the system is a model for other rural areas of the state, which share the same challenges as Warren County.

“On behalf of the Corbett administration, I am proud of our partnership with Warren County to make communications enhancements that will result in greater efficiency and collaboration,” said Walker. “This important project will enhance the health and safety of Warren County residents by facilitating critical community and emergency response communications.”

The website is the visible element and facilitator of an idea that more efficient communications among individual departments and their individual members will improve their overall operations through cooperation and coordination, and better communication through the site and social media will promote interest and perhaps spur interest in volunteering.

The challenge, according to COG Fire Services Committee Chairman Paul Pascuzzi and Bill Gallagher of Insight Technology, who explained the mechanisms of both the external and internal communications tools, was to join all 20 departments under the umbrella of Warren County emergency services while maintaining strong individual identities.

In that respect, “branding and marketing” of departments was important, a job that fell to Inez Nelson of Nelson Creative Services.

The need to do something to help the departments was great, said Pascuzzi who related dire statistics compiled in a 2008 report of a state study commission that included a precipitous decline in numbers of volunteers over the past three decades. While the study estimated 300,000 volunteers in the 1970s, that figure had dropped to about 45,000 in the 2000 decade, and the belief is the numbers are still falling.

The social media component of the program – through Facebook and other services – aims at a younger demographic, hoping to attract new volunteers.

After two months of operation, Gallagher noted a steady increase in visits to the site and a growing number of visits to individual department Facebook sites.

In that regard, Walker offered two suggestions: establishing a working partnership with the Boy Scouts, which has programs through its merit badge programs that would dovetail with the mission of emergency services, and closely working with the local school district, which has a community service requirement for graduation.

The presentation represented a casual dedication ceremony for the new system, complete with the cutting of a cake decorated with the warrencofire.org opening graphic.