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Pa. volunteer fire depts. share benefits of live-in firefighters

Some departments offer firefighters a place to live in exchange for serving their department

By Tony LaRussa
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

PINE TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Volunteer fire department officials know that having the latest fire-fighting apparatus at their disposal doesn't mean much without enough people on hand to respond to emergencies.

A lack of manpower to answer calls can be especially acute during the day, when many volunteer firefighters are working, fire chiefs say.

To address those needs, volunteer fire companies, including several in the North Hills, offer firefighters a place to live in exchange for serving with their departments.

Pine has had a live-in program since 2003. Marshall and Franklin Park are planning to include living quarters in fire station construction plans.

“The live-in program has been advantageous for us,” said Tim Flaherty, fire chief for Wexford Volunteer Fire Department in Pine. “Volunteers often work jobs outside the immediate area and can't respond to calls during the day, so it's very helpful to have people around the station during those times.”

Enrollment in the Wexford department's live-in program has fluctuated between three and six people at a time. They generally attend college, work full time or work and go to school part time, Flaherty said.

Aspinwall started a live-in program in 2011 with the intent of attracting college students.

But Fire Chief Gene Marsico said the program “hasn't panned out in the way that we thought it would.” But he said having living quarters in the fire station has been useful.

“Guys will volunteer to bunk at the station overnight when snow is predicted so we have a leg up when calls come in,” Marsico said. “And there have been times when firefighters will just sleep there if they've been out on a call during the middle of the night.”

Mark Edelmann of EPM Architecture, which is designing the projects in Franklin Park and Marshall, said live-in programs help volunteer fire services provide around-the-clock staffing without the expense to taxpayers of having paid fire fighters.

Plans to add a fourth bay to Marshall's No. 2 station on Knob Road will include living quarters for up to five firefighters, said R.J. Melnyk, the department's president.

“Station No. 2 is pretty tight, so we have to store some of our equipment outside,” Melnyk said. “We decided that if we are going to expand the station, it would be a good to add rooms on the second floor for a live-in program. The idea is to offer younger people attending college, or someone who's working but might not have a high-paying job, a place to stay while at the same time helping us with staffing.”

Township supervisors recently approved a $48,340 contract with EPM Architecture in Bradford Woods to design the No. 2 expansion. In addition to a new “drive-through” bay and living quarters, plans call for adding a “tower” for use in training firefighters to respond to emergencies in multi-story buildings.

“We do this kind of training on Tuesday evenings at North Park,” Melnyk said. “But by the time we gather everybody together, load up all the equipment and drive out to the park, there's often very little time left to train. Time is very valuable, so being able to devote more of it to actual training will be a big help.”

If township officials approve construction, the project will be paid for from the general fund instead of obtaining a loan, Manager Neil McFadden said.

Franklin Park's aging fire station is scheduled for demolition starting this month to make way for a new building that will include rooms for four people to participate in a live-in program the department is developing, said Bob Jarvis, president of the department.

State Fire Commissioner Tim Solobay said while live-in programs have been slow to catch on in western Pennsylvania, they should be viewed “as another tool that can be used for recruitment.”

Solobay noted that while the number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania fluctuates from year to year, overall the numbers have decreased dramatically since the 1970s, when there were about 300,000, compared to about 50,000 now.

“Even if a fire department gets one or two young people on a temporary basis it's going to help fill their ranks,” he said. “And providing a positive experience for the people in the program can help attract other candidates.”

Copyright 2017 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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