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Stronger Together: Inside the Merger of Two Historic New Jersey Services

On July 1, 2020, South Branch Emergency Services launched with the merger of two Central New Jersey EMS providers with more than 100 years of service and history between them. It was the culmination of more than two years of work.

The reasons Clinton First Aid & Rescue Squad and High Bridge Emergency Services merged are summed up by the South Branch slogan: Stronger. Better. Together. Improving the services we provide and the way we provide them not only benefited our community but created a single organization stronger and more efficient than its predecessors. Our choice greatly reduced the likelihood of a forced merger or takeover.

“There is power in getting out ahead of it, in making the decision while the decision is still yours to make,” says Melanie Ikenson Sloyer, the former High Bridge president who is now president-elect of South Branch. 

Mergers aren’t easy. We want to share what we’ve learned.

Merger Origins

Our organizations knew each other well. For the previous 15 years, Clinton’s paid personnel covered the hours when volunteers weren’t available for both Clinton and High Bridge. We provided stand-by for each other and responded to large calls together. 

Clinton approached High Bridge with an invitation to discuss merging about five years ago, but High Bridge wasn’t interested. In 2018 Sloyer and former High Bridge Chief J.T. Silliman (now South Branch battalion chief) reached out to Clinton leadership seeking ways to work more closely together. High Bridge, a 100% volunteer organization, had seen declines in volunteers and the hours they could serve. They had a small subset of long-serving volunteers running calls three or four nights a week, and they were exhausted.

Clinton, a combination department, was the larger organization with more service area, its own EMS training center, and more personnel—about 90 volunteers and 40 part-time and full-time paid staff. But while it had more volunteers, it also had higher volunteer turnover, partly due to the high number of high school and college students who serve until graduating and leaving the area.

Leadership from both squads began sharing information and exploring several options. In January 2019 a steering committee composed of community residents, local business leaders, elected and appointed officials from the municipalities served, and representatives from both emergency service organizations was formed. After reviewing current conditions and considering ways to improve them, the committee concluded combining the two organizations into one was the best option.

A merger meant fewer hours required of every volunteer—particularly the cadre of High Bridge volunteers—and streamlined operations with one administrative group and the elimination of redundancies in vehicles and equipment. “We’d also reduce the cost for everyone,” says Frank Setnicky, the former Clinton chief who is now the South Branch chief.

The Process

We created subcommittees and set a meeting schedule—monthly for most of the two years. Between meetings the subcommittees did research, gave progress reports to their memberships, and brought their homework and feedback from memberships to the next meeting.

The buy-in of key stakeholders was essential—first among them members. Each had its own culture and community. “We still had some of the sons of our founders as active members,” Silliman says. “One of my primary focuses was to make sure both organizations still maintained their identities and histories while coming together.”

We surveyed members at the beginning and continued to talk to and meet with them throughout the process. To ensure both organizations would continue to have a voice, we created an inclusive leadership team with administrative and line officers from both organizations.

Challenges and Solutions

Members of both squads welcomed responding together and training together (the latter started six months before the merger). We needed both stations, and each kept its history and memorabilia displays. We would have a mixed fleet—but what name would be on them? That was among the biggest hurdles.

We agreed both organizations would sacrifice their old name completely to build something new. Our memberships chose South Branch Emergency Services in honor of the South Branch of the Raritan River that flows through both towns. 

Important tip: Even if you choose a new name for your new blended organization, you may want to keep your old corporations active on paper. After a review of state regulations and laws, as well as billing regulations, we decided not to incorporate as a brand-new agency but to secure a name change and update what had been Clinton’s corporate structure. This was the easiest way to ensure there would be no delay in ambulance billing revenues, which are key to our survival.

South Branch added to its corporate structure a DBA (doing business as) Clinton and also kept the High Bridge nonprofit active so we can accept bequests to either agency without relying on benefactors to change their wills or beneficiaries.

Throughout the process we knew the residents of the communities we serve, as well as elected officials, would also need regular, comprehensive updates through the news media and municipal newsletters. We were clear on the benefits of merging, but residents and leaders had to understand what was happening and how they would benefit. We also wanted our new organization to have new branding, a new website, and new social media pages ready to roll on July 1. We partnered with the Communication Solutions Group, a Pennsylvania-based PR firm, for those services. 

Some issues were not completely worked out by the time we merged, and others were not understood until after we operated as a single entity. 

Clinton volunteers had a length-of-service awards program funded by one of the municipalities that organization served, and High Bridge had one funded by its municipality. The benefit transferred to South Branch, and we needed to negotiate with the municipalities regarding their shares. Those agreements were reached six months after our merger.

Clinton owned its building. High Bridge’s building is owned by High Bridge Borough, so a new lease had to be negotiated. In the end the combined organization ended up with less square footage under the renegotiated space, something that was not anticipated during early negotiations. This will not affect any responses, however. 

Post-Merger: How It’s Going

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we stuck to our schedule and merged on time. At 8 a.m. July 1, 2020, both High Bridge Chief Silliman and Clinton Chief Setnicky signed off the air for a final time with the county communications center. Setnicky signed on as the chief of the new Station 36 Rescue for the first time.

Service continued without a hitch. While it is too early to calculate efficiency savings, we have reduced our combined fleet by two vehicles so far—one that belonged to Clinton, one to High Bridge. 

Clinton had stricter monthly requirements for volunteer service hours and recording the hours served. Our new organization adopted modified versions of those policies. For those High Bridge volunteers who were constantly responding, the required hours are significantly less than what they were putting in. The former High Bridge station now has on-site staffing at night, with former High Bridge volunteers composing the bulk of those crews. The former Clinton station retains overnight staffing.

Since our merger we have had one well-supported fund drive. “We got notes about the merger from some community members saying it was about time,” Setnicky says, “and that they wished more organizations would do this same thing.” 

H. Bucky Buchanan was deputy chief of EMS for the Clinton (N.J.) First Aid & Rescue Squad and now serves in the same capacity for South Branch Emergency Services. 

Sidebar: Key Steps to a Successful Merger

Communicate Before, During, and After You Merge

  • Identify your stakeholders – ours are our personnel, volunteer and paid; community residents, municipal leaders, and business owners; donors; vendors; and the medical facilities to which we transport patients.
  • All of your stakeholders need to know the why, how, and when of a potential merger.

Listen to Stakeholders

  • Create multiple ways to gather feedback.
  • Respond to what what you learn.

Assign Leadership Roles Equally

  • Members of each merging organization must see their leadership involved.
  • Also include citizens and municipal leaders.

 Hire Needed Pros

  • You will need an attorney, an accountant, and a project manager, if there isn’t one in your working group.
  • You may need communications support.

Establish Structure. Set Deadlines.

  • Set a merger deadline and commit to it.

Review Systems & Assets

  • Resources: Buildings, vehicles, personnel, funding sources.
  • Policies and practices
  • Look for synergies and redundancies.
  • Consider what weaknesses a merger mitigates, and whether any will remain.

Review Financing Sources and Mechanisms

  • Ensure your funding sources and funding-related vendors are informed and on board. In our case, this included our municipalities, billing company, fund drive company, and marketing company.
  • Do you need to keep your existing corporate structures alive for billing and bequests?

Make it Happen

  • Change licenses, uniforms, insignia on vehicles.
  • Create a new website, social media pages, and stationary.
  • Communicate with all stakeholders before and after the merger.
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