(Part 1 of a series)
For 52 weeks a year without fail, Dan Stack and Shawn O'Brien meet for at least two hours every Tuesday evening to train with their colleagues at the Highland Volunteer Fire Company in McCandless.
It's a significant time commitment for anyone, but for volunteer firefighters throughout Western Pennsylvania, that's only the beginning.
When young men or women decide to be a volunteer firefighter in McCandless, they are sent to the Allegheny County fire academy for a minimum of 166 hours of initial training.
"It's broken down into four modules," said Stack, who also is the McCandless fire marshal. "They learn introduction to firefighting, fire ground support, exterior firefighting, interior firefighting.
"Recruitment and retention remain the biggest challenge—not only for us, but for firefighters throughout this area. It's unfortunate that people just don't have the time to commit to something like this."
In Cranberry, Bruce Hezlep, president of the Cranberry Volunteer Fire Company, said new recruits attend training at Butler County Community College in Butler. The campus includes a public safety training facility with a four-story tower that firefighters can use for ladder practice and a mock gas station.
Training is broken into the same four sections (introduction to firefighting, fire ground support, exterior and interior firefighting). The course requires about 150 hours to complete, he said.
“It’s a pretty significant commitment that you need to make,” he said. “When you finish that, it just means you know enough to know what you don’t know.”
That right, more training is ahead.
Hezlep said certifications are becoming more and more important in the firefighting world. By the end of 2013, Cranberry hopes to have all interior firefighters certified as Firefighter I, Hezlep said.
To become certified at that level, a firefighter must demonstrate proficiency at essential firefighting skills. Among the physical requirements are being able to throw up a ladder on a building, check self-contained breathing apparatus packs and have them on within 60 seconds.
Firefighters also have to pass a 100-point written examination and attend a 16-hour burn class. Becoming qualified in First Aid and CPR, plus taking a hazmat refresher course, are other necessities, Hezlep said.
“If you don’t pass all those, you’re not even invited to the dance,” he said.
He noted the company provides incentives for volunteers who become certified at the Firefighter I level, including bestowing them with a coveted leather helmet.
“It’s kind of status symbol,” he said.
Back at McCandless, O'Brien, the deputy chief at the Highland station, said recruitment is aimed at the young.
"We have a junior program, 16 to 18 year olds, and if we can recruit them, we can keep them," he said. "We host a lot of scout troops, boys and girls, to talk about what it means to be a firefighter. Anything we can do to keep reaching out at all times because none of us are getting any younger."
Hezlep said recruitment also is important at Cranberry, particularly with younger folks because they often have more time to complete certifications and trainings early on in their fire careers.
“They’re the future of our fire company,” he said.
After recruiting and retaining members, the next big challenge for some volunteer fire companies is finding the money to pay and maintain hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment:
- Turnout gear (pants, jacket, helmet, gloves, boots) $1,500 to $2,000 per each firefighter
- Self contained breathing apparatus: $2,500 each
- Pumper truck: $450,00-$500,000 each
- Aerial Truck: $1,000,000
- Vehicle Rescue Truck: $750,000
O'Brien said the three McCandless companies, Highland, Peebles, and Ingomar, depend on three main sources of funding.
"We get a set amount each year from the town of McCandless," said O'Brien. "We conduct one, direct mail fund drive and we work very hard to getting federal and state grants."
Things are a bit different in Cranberry.
The fire company is unique in that it receives funding from the township, which budgets 2.12 mils of real estate taxes every year for that purpose. Hezlep said the money, which amounts to roughly $500,000, is used conservatively to pay for gear, equipment and other items.
Because the firefighters don’t have to raise money through fish fries, bingos and other initiatives, they’re able to dedicate more time to training, Hezlep said. This also is a factor in the company’s success at recruiting and retaining new members.
“Training is a huge, huge component of what we do in Cranberry,” he said. “If we’re not fundraising, we can train. The township gets what I call ‘professional firefighters’ at a really good price.”
Even though volunteer fire companies can't offer its members money, and make incredible demands of their time, they can offer something intangible.
"You get that sense of belonging, that sense of duty to the community," said O'Brien.
Hezlep, who said he joined the company because he wanted to give back the community, agreed. There is a strong sense of camaraderie at the stations, with firefighters often becoming like family, he said.
“Once you join, you hear a lot about ‘the brotherhood,’” he said. “I tell you what, I know that if I got in trouble, or if I needed help, I have 50 guys I could call on.”
Tomorrow: Video of firefighting training in action.
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