The Bucks County Emergency Management Agency is changing the way it runs its Special Operations Team.
The changes include paying members of the group.
The Bucks County Salary Board this week approved the agency’s plan to shift the team from all-volunteer to paid per diem staff to meet a greater need and changes in emergency services.
The Bucks County Salary Board is made up of commissioners Diane Ellis-Marseglia, Bob Harvie, Gene DiGirolamo, and Controller Pam Van Blunk.
The estimated cost to move to a per diem team is $276,000 per year, with the amount varying based on the number of calls each year, according to officials.
Ellis-Marseglia said the county plans to evaluate the size of the team and the cost in the coming years.
George Wilson, director of operations for the Bucks County Emergency Management Agency, said the plan is to move from volunteers to 55 paid per diem members and five team leads.
Officials said they have seen a decline in the number of volunteers and the increased need for compensation for their training time and responses. Being a number of the team takes hundreds of hours of training.
The Special Operations Team is divided between groups skilled in technical rescue, hazardous materials, and dive operations. Some members are cross-trained to serve on more than one specialty group.
Wilson explained that there are presently 23 volunteers, but trying to recruit more volunteers has become more difficult. The problem is one faced throughout emergency services due to numerous factors, including people’s work and home responsibilities and the amount of training needed.
The team will pay $25 per hour for technicians, the bulk of the per diem jobs, and $26.50 for the five team leads. Each member is anticipated to work as many as 150 hours per year, officials said.
To come up with the pay scale, Bucks County officials looked at similar teams in Montgomery and Lehigh counties.
Wilson said the current volunteers are expected to move to some of the paid roles, but he noted some have been part of the team for decades and replacements will eventually be needed.
Growing the unit to 60 people will allow separate groups of technicians to respond to multiple locations throughout Bucks County at one time. It also reflects the size of the county and the potential hazards.
“Over time, I think these teams will develop organically,” Wilson said, adding that recruitment will take place annually.
The county aims to fund the per diem team through American Rescue Plan funds and move it to the general budget by 2026.
In the case of natural disasters and presidential emergency declarations, the salaries for the per diem teams could be refunded to the county by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA). For some incidents, companies responsible for the emergency are required to pay for the response.