Program gives troubled teens community service work at fire stations

The experience has been so positive for two juveniles that they are now junior firefighters

By Joe Napsha

LATROBE, Pa. — Juvenile offenders shine the trucks, spiff up the hall, assist at bingo fundraisers and even help roll up the hoses sometimes when trucks pull back into one of Latrobe's five fire stations after a call.

A juvenile probation program that gives teens community service work at the stations has benefited the youths and the all-volunteer fire company over the past five years, said city fire Chief John Brasile.

“It's worked out well for us, and it gives the kids a sense of volunteerism,” he said.

The fire company has had 20 to 30 teens do community service work at its stations, an experience so positive for two juveniles that they are now junior firefighters, Brasile said.

Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court Judge Scott Mears wants to place more juveniles with volunteer fire departments across the county to fulfill the community service requirements of their sentencing.

“My experience is that a lot of the juveniles are not terrible kids but become associated with peer groups who have negative influences on them,” said Mears, an associate juvenile court judge who sentences teens to community service. “They don't seem to have a (good) group to belong to. If we could introduce them to some firemen who generally are trying to improve our community, this might give them some positive influences and role models.”

The juvenile probation department currently oversees about 600 juveniles, according to Anthony Cremonese, the probation officer who coordinates the community service placement.

In 302 cases last year, the teen offenders were sentenced to community service and performed 7,226 hours, and 152 of those continued their sentence into 2017, Cremonese said.

At any time, the probation department oversees 150 to 175 juveniles who have outstanding community service requirements to fulfill. In addition to fire departments, they work at churches, nonprofits and the Westmoreland County Food Bank.

Mears and Cremonese set out last week to gauge the interest of the county's fire chiefs when they explained the program Friday at the Fire Chiefs Association of Westmoreland County meeting. Mears plans to explain the program again at the Westmoreland Firemen's Association meeting at 7:30 p.m. May 12 at Latrobe Fire Company No. 5.

Presenting the program to all of Westmoreland's fire departments “is going to make it a lot easier” to find placements for juvenile offenders, Cremonese said.

Mt. Pleasant fire Chief Jerry Lucia said his department has worked for several years with the juveniles assigned community service work. Some have stayed on and joined the fire department, Lucia said.

“We want them to perform meaningful community service that is not viewed as punitive. The important thing is that someone from the fire department supervises them,” said Cremonese, who also has placed juveniles with the Lower Burrell fire department.

The main stumbling block to the program has been getting state child abuse clearances under Act 34 from all firefighters who supervise the teens, he said.

Mears said he thought about the initiative recently after hearing new Greensburg fire Chief Tom Bell speak about the lack of young people joining fire departments.

“It's pretty well-documented that there is a shortage of young volunteer firemen in the area, so if we could get some of these juveniles to join some of these departments, it might be a help to the departments as well,” Mears said.

Westmoreland County Judge Michele Bononi, administrative judge of the county's juvenile court, likes the initiative.

“We're always looking for different types of community service,” Bononi said.

Mears said he wants to work with the juvenile probation department to be sure teens want to do their community service at a fire department. Ideally, those placements would be close to the teen's community, the judge said.

“We don't want to place them in a department where the student doesn't want to be,” Mears said.

Norm Mueller, deputy director of the probation department, sees the concept as a great idea that gives probation officers more options for placing juveniles where they can do community service without transportation concerns.

“With the number of fire halls in the county, everybody can walk to one of them,” Mueller said.

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