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7 Pa. FDs begin 6-month trial program with paid daytime crews

Volunteer fire departments in the Unity Township Fire Bureau are starting a duty crew program rotated among participating departments


Pleasant Unity Volunteer Fire Department Tower 35.

Unity Township Bureau of Fire/Facebook

By Jeff Himler

PLEASANT UNITY, Pa. — The seven volunteer departments in the Unity Township Fire Bureau are investing in their personnel to ensure they have crews available to respond to emergencies.

Beginning July 1, the departments are launching a duty crew program for a six-month trial. Their aim each weekday is to have one fire truck driver and a second firefighter standing by on each side of the Route 30 corridor that runs through the middle of the township from east to west.

Firefighters will be paid an hourly stipend of $12 for a 10-hour duty shift they can sign up for on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“We’ve been talking about it for years,” said Bill Watkins, chief of the Crabtree Fire Department and co-administrator of the duty crew program. “It’s something to help ensure we have coverage during the daytime hours, when we need it the most — when people are at work and we’re short-handed.

“When you look at the response to a fire or a vehicle crash or a hazardous materials situation, we may see lots of fire trucks, but what we don’t see is a lot of personnel to staff those fire trucks.”

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Duty shifts will run from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., rotating among participating local departments. The program won’t operate on weekends or major holidays.

As of Monday, a week away from the start of the program, about 30 firefighters had signed up for duty shifts, Watkins said.

When not responding to emergency calls, the duty crews won’t be sitting idle. According to Watkins, they may be cleaning and maintaining firefighting equipment, taking part in training or even going to public venues to participate in firefighter recruitment efforts.

“We want to expand our recruitment along with this program,” he said.

The local departments recruit junior firefighters at the Greater Latrobe School District. But, Watkins said, retaining them is difficult as many eventually move away for jobs.

“About eight years ago, we had upwards of 20 to 30 junior firefighters in Unity Township, and now we have 10 to 12,” he said.

That includes one junior firefighter with the Crabtree department.

“Thirty years ago, we had 10 in our department,” Watkins said. “When I was growing up, that’s what everybody did.”

The stipend may make it easier for firefighters to commit to a daytime shift with one of the Unity departments.

To prepare for the duty crew program, the seven Unity bureau departments — Crabtree, Dryridge, Lloydsville, Marguerite, Mutual, Pleasant Unity and Youngstown - Whitney - Hostetter — approved a joint agreement. Watkins said participation also has been extended to firefighters from some other neighboring departments, including New Alexandria and Trauger.

Chairman Mike O’Barto said the township supervisors support the new program.

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“If there is a call that comes in, the response will be quicker and also you will have multiple firemen arriving on the call,” O’Barto said. “Our problem today is that there just are not enough firemen to answer the calls like there were 30 years ago. Within that period of time, we’ve had more homes and more businesses in Unity Township .”

Brian Schultheis, Unity fire bureau president, can attest to that. The Lloydsville department, which he serves as fire chief, has seen its annual call volume grow from 350 to as many as 550.

“That’s a lot for a volunteer organization,” he said. “It’s been a steady increase; it doesn’t drop off. There are more cars on the road, more medical assists and more fire alarms.”

Schultheis said Unity fire officials looked to some similar paid duty setups in places like Jefferson Hills when developing plans for their trail run.

“We looked at a lot of their regulations and operating guidelines to help design our template,” he said.

When gauging the success of its program, he said, the Unity bureau will track the number and type of calls received as well as response times: “how it differs when volunteers are coming from home and not sitting at the station.”

To fund the stipend and any other expenses, Watkins said, the bureau will tap some of its interest-bearing accounts and some of the proceeds of the township’s 2-mill fire tax.

“We set some money aside to help fund this until January,” Schultheis said. “We’ll have to see how it goes. Then we’ll have to make a decision on how we will fund it from that point forward.”

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