Over the past couple of years, Paradise-Leaman Place Fire Company has undergone plenty of upheaval due to a proposed merger with Gordonville Fire and EMS Company and Kinzer Fire Company. After the supervisors of Paradise Township chose to forge ahead with the plan to consolidate despite people’s well-founded concerns, Paradise-Leaman Place was demoted from being a first responder with its own territory to being a mutual aid company in January 2022. The discontent that this led to, as the Gordonville and Kinzer fire companies were given first-responder status in Paradise-Leaman Place’s own locale, created friction between the fire companies that resulted first in Paradise-Leaman Place being stripped of township funding, then in the fire company being removed from “call boxes” — map quadrants that dispatchers use to alert the closest emergency services to any distress calls — that are in the Gordonville and Kinzer first-due territories.
Although Paradise-Leaman Place Fire Company is still a mutual aid company for plenty of other fire companies in the area, the fire company’s current independent status in Paradise Township means its volunteers are no longer able to freely serve in the area they used to call their own — even when the emergency takes place right on their doorstep. When a semitrailer veered off the road and smashed into a row of houses that were just a short walk away from the Paradise-Leaman Place fire station, people ran to ask for help, but the firefighters were not able to utilize any of their emergency equipment. Instead, they ran out in their street clothes to help as simple bystanders, doing what they could to make sure everyone involved in the accident was safe while they waited for the assigned fire company to arrive to offer emergency services.
Lieutenant Barry Yunkin Jr., the president of Paradise-Leaman Place Fire Company, explained to The Lancaster Patriot that his men were barred from acting in their fullest capacity because the territory had been assigned to other fire companies. “It’s not illegal, but there are ethics reviews and there’s some other disciplinary action that could happen from the county — not to mention it’s not a good practice and we still have great relationships with a lot of fire companies in the county,” he said. “And other fire companies here mustn’t respond without being dispatched. It kind of goes against the brotherhood, and it’s something that you don’t really do.”
Other problems have arisen due to Paradise-Leaman Place being removed from the call boxes by the steering committee that oversees the merger of the Gordonville and Kinzer fire companies. In September, a barn fire on Verdant View Farm ended in a mix-up about the nearest source of water since the volunteers answering the call were not very familiar with the area and did not have the resources necessary to locate a pond on the site. Instead, they used a much more distant fire hydrant and waited for a pumper truck to arrive to help get water to the burning building.
The township manager for Paradise, David Thompson, told The Lancaster Patriot that the barn fire did serve as a learning experience for the fire companies involved. He pointed out that people can dish out a lot of judgment over the mistakes that happen during emergencies, but it can be very difficult to find perfect solutions in high-stakes situations, especially if they happen at a late hour or if there are other difficulties involved. He hopes that more people, particularly those who have not served in such a demanding role as that of a firefighter, can give grace to the volunteers serving them. Even if it would have been optimal for firefighters from Paradise-Leaman Place Fire Company to have been on the scene due to their familiarity with the location, there were many other considerations that were being made, such as how a lack of trust between the volunteers could have led to other problems.
All the same, it is difficult for Paradise residents to accept this change when they were already pleased with the work of their local volunteers at Paradise-Leaman Place Fire Company. Wanda Ranck, a concerned citizen whose niece operates Verdant View Farm, the family’s fourth generation farm and bed-and-breakfast, told The Lancaster Patriot that many residents of Paradise are now concerned for their safety and feel that this situation is putting their lives, families, homes and livelihoods in danger. These residents want the township to stop trying to force a merger that no resident in the township asked for and that creates disunity rather than enhancing safety.
At the October 18 meeting of the Paradise Township Board of Supervisors, tensions and emotions ran high on all sides of the issue. During the public comments, some individuals appealed to the township to reconsider the consolidation or to hit the reset button and let the fire companies go back to their original territories while new conversations about a merger take place. Other comments criticized the township for cutting Paradise-Leaman Place’s funding and for going so far as to make it out of the question for Paradise firefighters to respond to emergencies right outside their doors. There was also a request for the township to consider creating a town-hall-type meeting where the supervisors, the communities and the fire companies involved could gather and finally have an opportunity to clear the air by asking questions, getting answers and bridging communication gaps that have led to misunderstandings and unease about the situation.
Yunkin said that Paradise-Leaman Place Fire Company is open to these suggestions, since everyone is interested in finding the right path forward. He believes that starting from scratch would be beneficial, since it would create a level playing field for all people involved and allow open discussion without fear of reprisal, like being removed from call boxes.
Thompson, however, said that a reset could cause even more problems than it would resolve, since the positive strides forward in the merger with Kinzer and Gordonville would be set back too much by starting over and that could result in even more bad blood. A desire to maintain the positive momentum is what has kept the merger’s steering committee from allowing anyone from Paradise-Leaman Place to have a seat on the committee — but that attempt to keep out naysayers who might call for a do-over has only reinforced the divide between the fire companies. Efforts are being made to find a path to mutual understanding and a restoration of goodwill, but not much of this is obvious from the outside.
“Progress is being made,” Thompson explained, “as much as maybe the public doesn’t believe or realize or see. So, that said, we could do better gaining the public’s trust with communicating better what’s coming out of the steering committee.” The township has heard the community’s demand to have greater clarity on what is happening, and he said that getting more information to the public is needful.
That does not mean the township agrees with the outcry to revert to how things have been. Ranck and others have managed to collect a petition of nearly 1,000 signatures from residents who disapprove of the merger, but Thompson said that the petition holds little weight with the supervisors since it is unclear how thoroughly the situation has been explained to those who signed it. Ranck was careful to provide evidence of meeting minutes and of the resolutions that defunded the fire company and otherwise tried to force the merger when there had been no public support for it, but Thompson said there are many other considerations. For example, rising inflation makes it much harder for small, local areas to fund buildings, vehicles, fuel and other supplies, and government grants tend to go to larger fire companies so that the money can stretch further.
Thompson added that the state government has, for almost 20 years now, been recommending that volunteer fire companies band together. Others who have witnessed such mergers, he explained, have said that the sorts of tension and friction currently happening in Paradise are actually very common, so the advice he has received is to “stay the course, try to get it worked out.”
His goal for now is to have more discussions take place with the people involved and with the community. Although the township will not discuss private operational and personnel issues with the public, the merger does impact the community and he wants to hear from more than the same few community members at the township meetings. He encourages business owners as well as the broader community to come learn about the situation and voice their opinions. Those who cannot attend a township meeting are encouraged to send an email, make a phone call, visit the township offices, or set up a meeting with the supervisors — all communication is welcome.
He said that he understands how disappointed many people feel regarding the state of affairs and how some people feel unsafe now. “I would like to say I’m sorry if they felt that we let them down,” he said. “But we’re working really hard behind the scenes to get this right.”
There need to be changes, one way or another, to repair the trust of the community. Ranck said that the communication she has received has been frustrating, and she has witnessed plenty of evasion when residents ask questions regarding the motivations and decisions of those in charge. She believes that if the community is not calling for the merger to take place to relieve funding concerns or anything else, then there is no need for the change — especially since just a few months before the township instigated the merger, an investigation task force that included appointees from the three fire companies involved and the chairman of the Paradise Township Board of Supervisors, Adam Bills, voted unanimously against a consolidation and told the township that it was not the right time to make such a move.
Ranck has never been satisfied with the reasons given for upending the service provided by Paradise-Leaman Place Fire Company. “I would understand if they were unprofessional. If they weren’t well trained,” she said — but that had never been a concern. Funding and volunteer numbers were always good in the community, so the forced merger and ensuing strife seems uncalled for to her and many others.
Despite all this, Yunkin has been looking for a way to make peace and to resume serving the community in the fullest capacity possible. “Paradise Fire Company’s stance on this, at this point, isn’t so much that we don’t want to merge, but we really don’t agree with how they’re doing things,” he said. However, he does not think the township is acting this way because they do not care about what people want. “I think it’s more along the lines of, they believe this is the best bet and they’re not going to be deterred by people talking out against them.”
What happens next for Paradise-Leaman Place Fire Company is hard to say, he admitted. There are meetings happening with newer township supervisors as well as talks happening with the steering committee. “There’s so much going on, it’s really hard for me to say, you know, ‘In a month I see this happening,’ because it changes by the week.”
Still, he wants the community to rest assured that Paradise-Leaman Place Fire Company is not going away. “We’re still here. We’re still open. We’re still doing everything that we can to protect you guys in any way that we can. We are hopeful that in the future, we can work this out and something can come up that, you know, Paradise will still respond to your call.”
The next meeting of the Paradise Township Board of Supervisors will take place at 7 p.m. on November 15, the third Tuesday of the month, at the Paradise Township municipal building at 2 Township Drive in Paradise. The township office can be reached at 717-768-8222 or through the contact form on the township website, paradisetownship.org.