$4.3 million federal grant assists Westmoreland firefighters
GREENSBURG, Pa., Aug.31, 2017- A $10,000 planning grant from the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County to evaluate emergency response capability by volunteer fire departments has led to a $4.3 million funding award from the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) to fund recruitment and training of 500 additional volunteer firefighters for the county.
The grant, sponsored by Hempfield Township, was awarded through FEMA’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program, which provides funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations to help them increase or maintain the number of trained, "front line" firefighters available in their communities.
A survey of Westmoreland County volunteer fire departments commissioned through the community foundation’s planning grant found a 16 percent drop in the number of firefighters through the past decade. The survey, conducted by consulting firm Decoplan Associates LLC, also found that 80 percent of the county’s fire departments do not consistently meet National Fire Prevention Association standards. Understaffing can lead to delays in fire and emergency response and potential safety risks when there aren’t enough personnel available for back up.
The SAFER grant will fund advertising and marketing for a recruitment effort, as well as safety gear purchases for current personnel and those who join. To encourage retention, the grant also will cover training opportunities, tuition reimbursement and insurance policies. A salaried administrative assistant and program manager will be funded for the duration of the four-year grant period.
“We recognized the significance of this investment in Westmoreland County and the potential it has to help volunteer fire departments build upon their rich tradition of selfless service,” said Phil Koch, executive director of the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County. “The SAFER funding allows us to create an awareness campaign to attract volunteers, and to provide all of our firefighters with safety equipment, physical exams and training they need to protect Westmoreland County residents and themselves.”
How the grant application came together: Consultants Jerry Brant and Timothy Longwill of Decoplan, along with Hempfield Township Manager Andrew Walz and Assistant Manager Bruce Beitel, recruited 60 Westmoreland County volunteer fire departments to sign on to the SAFER Grant application. Those 60 departments operate 83 stations around the county. That group, now known as WestCoFire, set goals to provide their departments with 500 new firefighters, encourage retention of existing firefighters and encourage additional training certification.
“Westmoreland County’s firefighters will be better trained, better equipped for and in higher supply because of the SAFER Grant,” said Doug Weimer, Board chairman of the Hempfield Township Supervisors. “With more resources, we can create a better understanding of available volunteer opportunities and foster a greater sense of community within our fire departments.” Hempfield Township will coordinate and administer the funding to the 60 participating departments.
Why the number of volunteer emergency responders has been on the decline: According to Decoplan’s research, fundraising and recruiting are cited most often as the most difficult problems to overcome when seeking new members. More than 62 percent of participating departments’ annual budgets comes from fundraising. Two departments in WesCoFire receive no municipal funding, and rely solely on their own fundraising to cover their budgets.
Volunteer fire department officials cite the time commitment, lack of awareness of the need and budgetary constraints as the main factors responsible for declining numbers of volunteers.
Since the 1980s, the traditional blue-collar economic base of coal mining and heavy industry in western Pennsylvania has faded, and some fire departments report having no members who work within their coverage areas. Decoplan also found that firefighters who work in the Pittsburgh area but live in Westmoreland County spend a disproportionate amount of time commuting to and from work, and are less able to leave work for an emergency call than in years past. Volunteer fire departments also report that many of their members hold two jobs, and many have spouses who work full time.
The volunteer fire departments participating in the SAFER Grant in Westmoreland County are:
- Allegheny Township #1
- Arnold #2
- City of Greensburg (6 stations)
- City of Latrobe (5 stations)
- City of New Kensington (5 stations)
- Derry Township
- Dry Ridge
- Fairfield Township
- Harrison City
- Hempfield Township (12 stations)
- Hyde Park
- Lower Burrell #3
- Murrysville #1
- Mt. Pleasant
- Mt. Pleasant Township #1 - Kecksburg
- Mt. Pleasant Township #3 - Calumet
- New Stanton
- North Belle Vernon
- North Irwin
- Pleasant Unity
- Rostraver Central
- Rostraver Township # 1 - Webster
- Salem Township #1 - Slickville
- Salem Township #2 - Forbes Road
- Southwest Greensburg
- Unity Township #6 - Marguerite
- West Leechburg
- Westmoreland City
- Westmoreland Homesteads
- White Valley
Facts about Westmoreland County: Westmoreland County’s 360,000 residents live in 38 boroughs and 21 townships and are served by 113 fire departments, of which 112 are comprised entirely of volunteers. There is much to protect in the county, including 19 public school districts, seven college campuses and two mid-sized regional airports, the Arnold Palmer Airport and the Rostraver Airport. The busiest highway, Interstate 70, is utilized by 45,000 drivers per day, followed by the Pennsylvania Turnpike, with 36,000 drivers per day. More than 100 natural gas wells and dozens of natural gas pumping stations operate here, as well as one of the largest underground natural gas storage fields in Pennsylvania, with 130 billion cubic feet of capacity.
The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, an affiliate organization of The Pittsburgh Foundation, is dedicated to responding to the ever changing needs of our county by working as a community matchmaker in the areas of grantmaking, community leadership, and donor development. Its mission is to encourage local residents to become philanthropists, to provide grants that support a wide variety of non-profit organizations, and serve as a community later. To learn more, visit http://cfwestmoreland.org.
Decoplan Associates LLC specializes in grant writing, strategic planning and project development for fire, and EMS organizations and municipal governments. Timothy Longwill and Jerry Brant of Decoplan Associates developed the Allegheny Mountain Firefighters Initiative and the WestCo Fire program, two of the largest recruitment and retention projects ever awarded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program.
About Hempfield Township: Hempfield Township is the oldest local municipality in western Pennsylvania. It encompasses 76.8 square miles and is the third largest Second Class Township in the State of Pennsylvania. To learn more, visit http://www.hempfieldtwp.com.
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