Pa. volunteer fire, ambulance fundraisers hurt by COVID-19
Officials say some departments have lost more than $20,000 from a canceled event
Erie Times-News, Pa.
NORTH EAST, Pa. — The community's two volunteer fire departments took over Heard Memorial Park in mid-July to stuff their visitors with sausage sandwiches, curly fries and cherry pie, whole or by the slice.
The difference this year, during what would have been the 75th edition of the North East Firemen's Cherry Festival, was that there were no thrill rides or games of chance, and the crowds of people who traditionally stroll the festival grounds during the week-long event were replaced by lines of vehicles driving through to pick up food.
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting restrictions placed on large gatherings forced North East fire officials to announce in late May that the festival would be postponed until 2021.
The cancellation not only cost the North East community a popular summertime event, it cost the Crescent and Fuller hose companies their main source of raising money to fund department operations.
"It made us look at different ways to do things, how to raise money," North East Fire Chief Dave Meehl said.
Area fire and emergency medical service agencies, already taxed by increasing calls, decreasing membership rosters and other challenges volunteer departments have faced for some time, are now dealing with a new challenge in the wake of COVID-19: trying to raise money to operate when their main sources of funding have been canceled, postponed or restricted because of the virus.
It's a problem volunteer fire and EMS services throughout the state are dealing with, Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner Bruce Trego said.
"We are hearing from a fair number of volunteer departments that overall they are hurting because they couldn't raise their money," Trego said.
He said he has heard of some departments losing more than $20,000 because members could not hold a fair, carnival or other large event. That's "very critical" to volunteer organizations, Trego said, because many do not receive a lot of monetary support from the municipalities they serve.
Some government assistance is being offered to departments, in particular to offset COVID-19-related expenses incurred. But, for now, a number of volunteer agencies in the Erie region have restricted spending and put off planned equipment purchases or building projects while trying to come up with other ways to raise money.
Events on hold
The Erie County summer festival season typically kicks off in June with the Lake City Fire Company Carnival. But officials were forced to cancel the 96th edition "because of everything going on and the risks and taking the advice of the county health department," Lake City Fire Chief Tom Hosack said.
"That's our primary fundraiser as far as true fundraising," Hosack said, noting the company also does an annual membership drive that it mails to residents. "The carnival is our biggest fundraiser for operating costs, upgrades to equipment, day-to-day operations and future large item purchases, so it's a big hit to have to cancel that."
Hosack noted that the company has been trying to come up with ways to purchase a new fire engine to replace a 1985 rig. That would cost $500,000 to $600,000 for a basic firefighting apparatus, and that's a lot of fundraisers to make a payment like that, he said.
"Especially for smaller departments that don't have a lot of income," Hosack said.
The fire company imposed a spending freeze, only covering necessary day-to-day operational expenses such as utility bills and putting off projects and anything else that was not "absolutely needed" until it got other fundraisers up and running or came up with another way to replace the money lost from the carnival, Hosack said.
The company has tried to offset the loss by selling tickets for a meat and freezer raffle, which sold out and was drawn last week; and a grocery gift card raffle. But another of its planned fundraisers, a gun raffle scheduled in the fall, is up in the air right now, Hosack said. The company might not be able to get guns and the Albion Area Fair, where the department sells its gun raffle tickets, has been canceled, he said.
The Cochranton Volunteer Fire Department & Ambulance Service in Crawford County canceled its gun raffle, which was scheduled for November, because of uncertainty over what level of COVID-19-related restrictions might remain in place.
The department also lost out on raising money when the Cochranton Community Fair was canceled, and when it temporarily closed Station 4 Firehouse Grille, its social club and restaurant that serves as a major source of funding, after Gov. Tom Wolf reduced indoor dining capacity to 25 percent in mid-July, Cochranton Fire Chief Scott Schell said.
Operating at that capacity "doesn't pay the electric bill or the staff," Schell said.
"It has just knocked the hell out of every volunteer fire department in the county," Schell said of COVID-19. "People can't have fundraisers, and that's what puts fuel in the trucks."
Cochranton has an annual department fund drive, as do most other volunteer fire and EMS agencies, and while it's extremely helpful, it doesn't bring in the amount of money the various fundraisers do, Schell said.
"We have just tried to cut every cost we can possibly cut. If we don't need something ... even if we do need something, we put everything on hold. We're still able to pay if something breaks down and must be fixed," he said.
The Edinboro Volunteer Fire Department's social club, Engine House 39, has remained open during the pandemic, but it has been a challenge, department President Daryl Parker said.
The club was at first limited to carryout food before restaurants were allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity, which was "like a godsend," Parker said.
"We were starting to see things pick back up and come into shape. We were really happy with the performance level and the support from the community. Now we're down to 25 percent. It's kind of a gut blow," he said.
At a recent board meeting of the department, which was forced to cancel other fundraisers as a result of the pandemic, the general consensus was "you have to make it through the best you can," Parker said. Projects and purchases were put on hold to make sure the utility bills can be paid and the department can do the things "you have to do to keep the forward momentum," he said.
"Hopefully the end is somewhere in sight somewhere soon," Parker said. "It's crazy. I'm sure there are lots of other nonprofits and businesses affected, and I feel certainly horrible for them. But when it comes to the fire service, it's public safety."
Lending a hand
Steps have been taken at the state level to provide some assistance to those emergency service agencies feeling the pinch.
The state Office of the State Fire Commissioner opened registration in early July for those agencies seeking a portion of $50 million in grant money set aside to provide financial relief to fire, rescue and EMS agencies impacted by COVID-19. Of the amount, $44 million will be made available to fire and rescue companies and the remaining $6 million to EMS companies.
The grant deadline was Aug. 7 but has been extended to Friday, Trego said.
He said the grant money can be used for expenses related to COVID-19, over and above a company's normal purchases, including personal protective equipment; decontamination equipment; and operational expenses.
Program funds may be used to supplement operational expenses incurred by the lack of opportunities for fundraising and inability to create revenue due to compliance with the COVID-19 guidance, according to information in the grant outline.
Career, or paid, departments can use the money for overtime costs during the COVID-19 emergency, according to the outline.
Trego said his office, which also handles the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program, additionally provided assistance by extending the maturity date of the 2 percent fixed-rate loans departments can obtain for facilities, apparatus and equipment. Those departments did not have to make payments in April, May or June, with no interest charged and no penalty fees, he said.
In Erie County, at least $500,000 of the $6.5 million set aside to assist nonprofit agencies from the $24.3 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds the county received has been allocated to reimburse the volunteer fire and nonprofit EMS providers for any out-of-pocket expenditures related to COVID-19, County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper said in a statement to the Erie Times-News.
The departments were notified that if they had purchased equipment, supplies or other things for the safety of their members or for enhancing their ability to respond to calls for assistance from the public, they would need to provide documentation to be reimbursed 100 percent from the county utilizing federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, Dahlkemper said.
She said eligible expenditures include utilities, insurance, apparatus repairs and fuel, personal protective equipment and other COVID-19-related expenses. It is not available for lost revenue from fundraising events, but departments may be eligible for CARES Act funding administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services if they rely on fairs or festivals that financially support them, according to Dahlkemper's statement.
Crawford County has given each of its volunteer fire departments $25,000 from its CARES Act funding, county Commissioner Eric Henry said.
Area volunteer emergency service agencies have had to adapt on the fly to try and generate funds to replace the dollars lost through event cancellations and other COVID-19-related restrictions.
For members of the East Mead Volunteer Fire Department near Meadville, it meant taking advantage of its 13-acre property.
The department holds three fundraisers each year that "kind of meet our budget," department Treasurer Bill Coston said. Two are raffles, and the third is a food stand the department has operated at the Crawford County Fair since 1977.
With the fair canceled and with a bunch of food already purchased for a spring raffle that was also canceled, Coston said department leaders decided to "change the way we were doing things."
"Without those three, we had to figure out a way to meet our budget," he said.
The department decided to sell the food they would have served at the Crawford County Fair on department property off Route 27 in May, and have since held two other monthly events. A fourth is scheduled for Aug. 30.
In addition to department-made food, the events have featured music as well as the offerings of some other vendors that participated in the county fair, Coston said.
The events have gone over well with the community and are doing a little better each time, he said.
The Cambridge Springs community stepped up to help the fire department make up the money lost from the cancellations of its annual carnival, music festival and gun raffle, said Chris French, chief of the Cambridge Springs Volunteer Fire Department.
The department partnered with Found Lounge in the borough to sell carnival food and to hold a boot drive at the Grant Street business over two days in late July. Other businesses donated items for the department to raffle off, including a smoker, gift cards, an electric guitar and a fire ring, he said.
The department has to watch what it spends and has to hold more fundraisers to make up the losses of its three big events, French said. But he said he's appreciative of everything the community has done to help out.
"People are dropping off checks to the fire department. We've had people stop by and say, 'Here, this is what I would have spent at the carnival,'" he said.
In North East, firefighters held a drive-through fund drive at their stations in June, which "ended up being a really good success," Fire Chief Dave Meehl said. Then they worked with the Erie County Department of Health on setting up a plan for selling food during the scheduled time of the Cherry Festival, which they were able to do by teaming up with Rusty Wheel Concessions, he said.
Long lines of vehicles weaved their way through Heard Memorial Park daily during the drive-through food sales, which ran from July 14 through 18, Meehl said.
"It was not like a true Cherry Festival, but the community really supported us," he said. "It helped pay for a lot of key things like insurance to cover the buildings and other things. That's $40,000-some right there."
©2020 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.)