WEST MIDDLESEX — When a heavy, wet snow fell and caused fallen trees and damaged power lines Nov. 16, causing havoc throughout Mercer County, the fire departments in West Middlesex and Shenango Township didn't get a single call.
"We can't explain it," said West Middlesex Fire Department President Adam Garrett about why the county's extreme southwestern region was spared the storm's effects.
But Garrett could speak for his counterparts in Shenango Township about the volume of reports because dispatchers have been alerting both fire departments for rescue dispatch calls. The procedure is a step on the path that could wind up with the two agencies becoming one.
The two fire departments are working toward a merger that would formalize a cooperative, but informal, relationship that has been building over the past year.
Shenango Township fire Chief Justin Barnes said he has made it a priority to repair broken connections between the two agencies since he took charge in June of 2017.
"We really started to rebuild the relationship between Shenango and West Middlesex fire companies," he said.
Barnes did not elaborate on difficulties between the two departments, but said things had improved sufficiently by May for representatives from West Middlesex and Shenango fire departments to publicly raise the issue of a merger.
At that time, the two agencies had been forced into cooperation by closure in April of the West Middlesex Viaduct, which spans the Shenango River and connects the borough's business district to residential neighborhoods to the west. Until the bridge reopened Nov. 20, traveling the distance of a few hundred feet required a 7-mile detour.
It also forced residents of the western part of West Middlesex to depend on Shenango Township — which has fire companies west and east of the borough — for first response in emergencies.
Barnes said preliminary merger talks were well underway before the viaduct closure, but that it "helped a little bit."
Barnes and Garrett said volunteer fire agencies are having problems maintaining membership, but the rosters at both Shenango and West Middlesex are strong. Combining their strength would provide additional manpower on individual calls.
West Middlesex has about 30 active firefighters with a population of 863 people, according to the 2010 census. With a population of 3,929, Shenango Township has 41 active firefighters.
With both departments dispatched on each other's calls, Barnes said he's already seeing what emergency response would look like after a merger.
"Instead of getting five or six guys per call, we're getting 12 to 15 guys per call," he said.
Barnes said a merger could help generate sufficient manpower on emergency calls and get those enhanced numbers on the scene quickly, which would literally save lives and preserve property.
The next step would be forming committees to reconcile differences in the departments' operations, financial procedures and by-laws for whichever entity rises out of the merger.
"Ultimately, there are two different organizations, the by-laws are different, the standard operation procedures are slightly different," said West Middlesex's Garrett.
The merger steering committee and subcommittees would require legal assistance. Garrett and Barnes said they planned to approach the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
Barnes said authorities in Harrisburg are encouraging inter-municipal cooperation, including fire department mergers.
"The state is really starting to promote putting the groups together," he said.
Even as West Middlesex and Shenango Township seek legal counsel, there is already a blueprint for the merger process just over the county line to the south. Last year, Shenango Township, Lawrence County, and South New Castle police departments united under one banner, completing a process that took about two years.
The process, however, went more smoothly than the timeframe might indicate, said Shenango Township, Lawrence County, fire Chief David Rishel.
"If we had wanted to, we could have done it in a year," said Rishel, a retired district judge. "But we weren't in a hurry and we all knew we wanted to get it done."
In that merger, the two departments hired an outside attorney for counsel on the process, with Lawrence County Commissioners providing $7,000 of fees from oil and gas drilling in the county.
Rishel said the demands of training had caused dwindling membership in both departments. The declining manpower, in turn, resulted in fundraising difficulties.
Both Garrett and Barnes said they believe the West Middlesex-Shenango Township merger will run into relatively few difficulties.
"We understand that there are differences in the documents, so there will be some disagreement," Garrett said. "But I expect that it will be a relatively smooth process."
Herald Business Editor Michael Roknick contributed to this story.
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