Lacretia Wimbley Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [email protected] Oct 11, 2019 5:47 PM
“Members needed …” reads a billboard outside the Evergreen Volunteer fire station in Ross.
Out of nearly 200 volunteer fire departments in Allegheny County, many are facing a staffing “crisis,” according to Allegheny County executive candidate Matt Drozd, who on Friday called for county officials and local councils to take the issue more seriously.
“Some signs outside local fire departments don’t just say members wanted, they say members needed,” Mr. Drozd said. “You take all those volunteer fire departments across Allegheny County, and if we had to replace them, this would be a horrendous tax burden on the citizens of Allegheny County.”
During a press conference outside the Berkeley Hills fire station, also in Ross, the former Allegheny County councilman, alongside Berkeley Hills Fire Company president Curtis Kelly, described an ongoing decline in manpower at fire stations in Ross.
It’s a trend that began in the late ’80s, and affects the entire county as well as the state, they said. Mr. Drozd, a Republican, called on Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to do more, but noted he isn’t “pointing the finger at him.” He said local communities can do more to help recruit and provide funding as well.
“They’re having difficulty in recruiting new membership,” Mr. Drozd said. “So I did some analysis [years ago while on council]. I said, do you realize, if we have to replace these volunteer fire departments, a small borough like Coraopolis would cost $2 million a year, which would break their bank. Now, you take that to Ross and all these fire departments here, you’re talking money that would probably be beyond what their budget is.”
The Berkeley Hills fire president on Thursday expressed the option that volunteer fire departments should consolidate.
“Everyday, somebody is unable to respond because they don’t have the men,” Mr. Kelly said. “We cover each other, obviously, and we’ve beefed up our alarms. But a first alarm can involve six to eight companies just to get the manpower here during the weekdays.”
He said staffers help handle more than just fires, which is what sets the volunteer services apart from paid firefighters.
“It’s floods, lines that are down, car accidents, hunting for missing people,” Mr. Kelly said. “We do other things that paid departments don’t. We do Halloween parades, we take Santa Claus around at Christmas time. We’re involved in the community.”
It costs Berkeley Hills roughly $250,000 a year to run the fire department, Mr. Kelly said. Equipment alone can add up to millions, and the time and effort it takes to raise money “just to keep our door open” is extensive, he said.
“This has now not just become a crisis financially, it’s becoming a crisis public safety wise,” said Mr. Drozd, who vowed to make the issue a priority if elected. “That’s why I’d hope that the constituents and people of Allegheny County would get behind volunteer firefighters and do something to help them — including the public. We can’t let it go further down the road where the crisis becomes a dilemma, a catastrophic dilemma. That’s what could happen.”
Mr. Fitzgerald said Friday the county executive office has no true authority regarding individual volunteer fire departments.
“It is a statewide issue that the state is taking a look at,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.
He acknowledged that the lack of staffing is an issue, and said some volunteer fire departments in the county don’t have funding at all.
“What we did do, around 10 to 12 years ago, was provide a certain amount of funding for volunteer firefighters who had put in so many years, to get free tuition at [Community College of Allegheny County] for a couple semesters,” he said. “We can encourage the fire departments to merge, or consolidate, but we can’t enforce anything. We want to continue those programs, however.”