Updated 19 minutes ago
Most of Westmoreland County’s volunteer fire departments will share a $4.33 million federal grant to recruit and train up to 500 new firefighters, officials said Thursday.
The “Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response,” or SAFER, grant from FEMA will cover a variety of costs, including advertisements to recruit volunteer firefighters, paying tuition for training at Westmoreland County Community College’s expanding Public Safety Training Center, purchasing gear and providing retention incentives such as free life insurance.
The grant will be administered through the Hempfield Bureau of Fire but will be shared by 60 departments representing 83 of the county’s 113 fire stations.
“The Westmoreland County firefighters, with this grant, will be better trained and better equipped,” said Doug Weimer, president of the Hempfield Board of Supervisors and a member of the community college board of trustees.
With 12 departments recently united under the Bureau of Fire, Hempfield is the largest provider sharing in the grant, he said.
“Every fire department is definitely hurting for personnel… I don’t think there’s a fire company in Westmoreland County, in the state or even the country that isn’t,” said John Bacha, chief of the Pleasant Unity Volunteer Fire Department. “With today’s world and people working multiple jobs, it limits the amount of time dad can leave or mom can leave to do fire service work.”
The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County used an initial $10,000 foundation investment to commission a study of the county’s fire department staffing and needs last year, said Executive Director Phil Koch.
“One thing I continued to hear over and over again, whether I was in Salem Township or West Leechburg, is first, how important firefighters are to the fabric of their communities… They can be people in service jobs or doctors and lawyers,” Koch said. “The second point I heard was that there was concern about staffing.”
According to the study by Cambria County-based consultant Decoplan, 80 percent of departments surveyed could not consistently meet the National Fire Protection Association’s standards of having 6 to 10 personnel responding to a scene within 10 to 14 minutes, depending on the density of the area served.
To get enough firefighters to adequately staff a call, dispatchers sometimes have to call multiple departments, said Youngstown Volunteer Fire Department Chief Barry Banker.
“People sometimes ask why we need so many fire trucks at some scenes. But it’s not the trucks we need, it’s the men on them,” he said.
Bringing in more fire trucks over longer distances lengthens response time, puts extra wear and tear on equipment and increases the risk of crashes along the way, Banker said.
Bacha said the number of volunteers actively responding to calls had declined over the past 10 years, and the roster of firefighters they had was getting grayer. Older firefighters were having to take less-demanding work, operating pumps and ladders rather than attacking fires from inside burning buildings; younger firefighters were being pulled away to family responsibilities as they got married and had children.
Banker said the original grant application contained some small stipends for firefighters who responded to certain percentages of calls each year, though he was unclear if the final grant included that component.
“It would give them a little incentive to get out of bed at 2 or 3 in the morning for a call,” he said. “Nobody’s going to make a living off this, but a little gas money.”
Paying for a new firefighter’s protective jackets, pants, gloves, boots, hoods and helmets would be a step up from the current method of giving the rookies hand-me-down gear, Banker said.
“It used to be you were asking them to invest 188 hours of training in the department and then you’d give them the worst gear in the department. That’s not good for morale,” he said.
A SAFER grant-funded effort among 32 departments in the Altoona-Johnstown region is in its fourth and final year, having exceeded its recruitment goal , said John Brant, one of the Decoplan consultants who worked on the study and grant application.
“They recruited 409 new firefighters over four years,” Brant said “Their goal had been to recruit 300, so they eclipsed that.”
The key, Brant said, will be effective advertising of both the need for firefighters and the benefits available to them.
“You can have all the incentives in the world, but nobody will take advantage of them if nobody knows about them,” he said.
Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @msantoni.