There’s been a string of winter fires. Does this company have what it needs to fight them?

Fire destroys building on Penns Valley Pike

Fire destroys a building at 3366 Penns Valley Pike on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.
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Fire destroys a building at 3366 Penns Valley Pike on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

In the midst of a volunteer and funding crisis affecting volunteer fire companies all over Pennsylvania, Gregg Township Fire Company is facing a problem that could threaten the safety of the township and its surrounding residents.

One of the company’s engines called a “pumper” — built in 1991 and worth only $8,000-$10,000 — has a water pump that failed twice during major fires in the past month.

To replace the part that failed, Gregg Township Fire Chief Scott Breon said, would cost around $15,000-$20,000 — if the mechanic can even find the part they need.

First, the pump wouldn’t turn while crews were pumping water from Sinking Creek near Shunk Road during a building fire at Diamond Custom Kitchens on Jan. 15. Then, the pump failed again during a fire that destroyed a home on Mountain Spring Lane in Potter Township on Jan. 30.

In both cases, Gregg Township was providing mutual aid to Centre Hall Fire Company.

“We’ve got to do something,” Breon said at a fire company meeting Monday night. “We’ve had two working fires now that the engine let us down on.”

It’s been a particularly grueling winter fire season for Gregg Township and other Centre County fire companies. Gregg Township has been called to four working structure fires in the past three weeks, and three of them have been major.

But time is not on their side. It would take over a year to apply and be awarded a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant toward the cost of a new pumper, said Breon. And the fire department doesn’t have much in the way of extra cash. They don’t receive a fire tax from Gregg Township — though the township pays about $35,000 every year for the fire company’s workman’s compensation — and rely mostly on fundraisers, donations and grants.

Most of the company’s equipment is over a decade old because they don’t have the money to replace it, Assistant Fire Chief Darin Bressler said, including protective fire gear that should be retired, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

“We have enough people to fight the fire. We don’t have the equipment to fight the fire,” Bressler said.

The fire department was initially split between people who wanted to spend the money to repair the current truck, and those who wanted to try to make do without it while coming up with money for a new truck. Ideas floated were: taking money out of a certificate of deposit (CD) early, tapping into a $300,000 donation willed to the fire department, asking for money from state representatives or using some money from the volunteer firefighters’ relief fund.

The company finally reached a tentative stop-gap solution after a member suggested using a borescope and examining the pump to check if the impellers (which increase pressure and flow of water) are working correctly and seal the pump shaft so it doesn’t leak — with a rubber material called “packing.”

That solution would cost the company around $1,000. If it works, it could buy them anywhere from a few months to a few years. But they are going to start applying for grants to cover the cost of a new pumper. Breon said he would like to pursue a fire tax of some sort.

Gregg Township Supervisor Keri Miller said that a fire tax is more complicated to implement than it seems.

“We tried implementing an LST tax this year (for EMS), and what we found ... people were less likely to do the membership for the EMS because they were already feeling like, ‘You’re taking our money anyway,’ ” she said.

But even without a dedicated fire tax, Miller said township residents can make a difference for the fire company.

“When you’re looking at raising funds for something, people are more likely to support it when they’re emotionally invested in it as opposed to being forced into it,” she said.

It’s important for the township to get the word out about the fire company’s funding needs, she said, because “this is a serious situation ... we need to kinda rally the community to make sure this service is still available.”

People might be willing to give more if they can see that their $500 donation is going directly to protective gear a firefighter wears, or a truck that holds enough water to put out a house fire, Miller said.

“From the township perspective we will do whatever it takes to make sure we have fire service in Gregg Township,” she said.

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