BROCTON - Brocton and Portland's fire departments, which are already at low volunteer numbers for fire and emergency response, have another unique situation to solve.
Routinely, volunteers from both departments respond for one another's jurisdiction in order to get the fire and emergencies handled. Thus far, each department helping the other out hasn't posed any issues, except for the state's new requirement concerning how each district's certificate of needs are written. Where emergency services are considered, Brocton's volunteer department's certificate is only issued for coverage within the village limits despite its members responding within fire protection district #1 (a fairly sizeable coverage area within Portland's township, but outside of the Brocton village limits.)
Leaders of both the town and village met recently, with representatives from both departments to try to establish what a potential solution could look like.
"At this point, we cannot do an inter-municipal agreement between the departments because of that certificate of need. Last year, the state health department looked the other way on it because we told them we would merge the departments. But now we're six months away from this issue being revisited, and there's been no action taken on a merger," explained Brocton Mayor Dave Hazelton.
"We need to do something because we certainly don't want to sign an illegal contract," stated Hazelton.
Portland Town Councilman Gary Miller asked those in attendance, "What is the stance from both fire departments on a potential merger?"
Dan Thompson, a member representing Portland, stated their department and governing body are waiting for a more specific legal opinion first before they take any more steps forward on the issue.
"In reality, we have all been operating as one department for a number of years; we just haven't taken the steps to actually do it," added Hazelton, who has been involved in both volunteer departments for several years.
The Portland department has operated under the governance of the fire commissioners since its inception in 1931. Brocton's department used to consist of two departments: Hose Company #1 and Citizen Hose. Both of those companies merged in 1978 to form what is now the Brocton Volunteer Fire Department.
Since the certificates of need were originally established 30 years ago, and both companies have been operating "as is" without issue, State Health Department Senior EMC Representative for Operations and Emergency Preparedness Dana Jonas has corresponded with all parties involved to offer some potential solutions to the issue, which Hazelton noted "are some I frankly don't agree with."
Solutions suggested by Jonas include: creating an entirely new district with all of the major stakeholders from both Brocton and Portland as representatives and decision makers; having one department be solely responsible for ambulance and EMS coverage; transferring Portland's certificate of need to the town allowing for an inter-municipal agreement; or hiring an outside ambulance company to provide the coverage.
After discussing the pros and cons of some of the options outlined in Jonas' most recent email (which was provided to the OBSERVER) all leaders and department representatives agreed a public forum to gain input from residents and fire department membership needs to be established.
"We need some joint meetings with all departments and governing bodies involved. We need to put it out to the people of this area. We have to make a decision here," stated Town Councilman Gary Miller.
Councilman Rick Manzella agreed.
"This is not only about manpower. Now this is a legal issue."
Town Supervisor Dan Schrantz concurred.
"We need residents and fire department members to bring their questions and concerns. This is a big concern."
A public meeting has been set for Tuesday, July 31 at 7 p.m. to be held at Brocton Central School's auditorium. All parties who meet hope to get some insight from residents in Brocton and Portland's districts, as well as from the men and women who provide the volunteer fire and emergency services to them.
Brocton fire department member Clarence Grover noted many members of both departments have been discussing the issue, but more light needs to be shed on the heart of the issue and the facts surrounding it.
"You don't know what to think, you hear so many stories. We need to know what the straight facts are. It can't be about cost savings at this point, it has to be about the people."