Medical squads to merge with town Fire Department

Township will pay for merger and operation costs for first three years of joint services

By: Scott Morgan
   FLORENCE — In October 2003, voters decided that the township Fire Department, fragmented into three locations in Florence and Roebling, would merge into one centrally located station.
   It wasn’t necessarily a smooth transition. Opponents to the consolidation said they resented the idea of moving to a small strip of road off Cedar Lane. Yet despite threats of a group exodus by volunteers, the Fire Department has actually generated more interest than it has in years and stands to be well-staffed when the new station opens its doors in the spring.
   So fire officials are used to the idea that consolidation can be a tough sell. Now they’re gearing themselves up for another consolidation, only this time it’s with the township’s emergency medical squads.
   On Dec. 7, township officials approved a resolution to merge the fire and medical departments under the authority of the Fire Department by July 1. The plan also states that the township will pay for the cost of the merger and the ensuing operation for the first three years of the joint services. The Board of Fire Commissioners passed a similar resolution Dec. 12.
   "This is the first phase of … the Fire Department being responsible for all emergency services 24/7," said Fire Chief Edward Kensler in a telephone interview last week. Although he said that he anticipates some friction with the idea, Chief Kensler said the merger plan is a sound one, as it will provide a centrally located emergency squad and make finances (from budgets to grant requests) run more smoothly.
   "In the long run," he said, "I think it’s going to be in the best interest of the township and its residents."
   The Fire Department is no stranger to EMS operations. Since August 2003, the township’s paid firefighters have covered EMS calls Monday through Friday from their post on Delaware Avenue.
   The township EMS crew is also no stranger to being under Fire Department authority. Capt. Derrick Tucker of the Florence Emergency Squad said last week that until about 15 years ago, the township EMS shared its services and home base with the township Fire Department. After striking out on its own, Capt. Tucker said, the EMS found its volunteer numbers lacking. By the time he received word of the merger two weeks ago, he said, it was no surprise.
   "We knew it was coming," he said.
   Whether it will work, what will happen to the emergency squad’s buildings and how much it all will cost won’t be known for a while, Chief Kensler said. The great hope, he said, is that while the fire and medical services will be considered two separate paths, there will be a greater opportunity for volunteers to cross train for both.
   As for whether it will work, Capt. Tucker said sees no reason why it wouldn’t, if time is allowed and attention is paid to the basics.
   "My opinion is that it’s not going to work for the first couple years unless they plan on staffing (the squad) 24 hours a day," he said. "But if they play their cards right, it’ll work out (eventually)."
   Fire and emergency squad officials were scheduled to meet last night (Wednesday), after the Register-News’ went to press, to discuss how the merger will shape up.