Heidelberg, neighboring fire departments to use FEMA grant to update gear

Megan Guza
| Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Four area fire companies will be able to bring life-saving equipment up to date, thanks to a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Association.

Companies in Heidelberg, Kirwan Heights, Rennerdale and Oakdale came together to apply for the 2013 FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant and were awarded $288,420. The money will be put toward replacing the self-contained breathing apparatus at each department.

The SCBA, or air pack, is the equipment that allows firefighters to breathe clean air while inside a fire or other hazardous situation.

Heidelberg fire chief Joe Wissell Jr. said the grant will allow all four of the departments to have the same type of air packs.

“If a man goes down inside a structure, our guys will be able to assist that firefighter and know what air pack he has on his back,” said Wissell, who is also the EMS chief for Kirwan Heights.

Rennerdale fire chief David Brown said having standardized equipment will across the departments will keep everyone safer.

“We use these every day,” he said. “It's equivalent to our police officer's bulletproof vests. It's our bread and butter.”

Wissell said the National Fire Protection Association — the organization that sets recommended equipment standards — released new standards last year. Departments are not required to meet the standards, but none of the departments' current air packs met the latest standards.

Previously, the air packs alerted firefighters when they had just 25 percent air left. Under the new standards, the packs are required to send an alert at 33-percent supply, giving them more time to get out before their oxygen is depleted. The new devices can also withstand higher temperatures for a longer time and contain LED lights, making it easier for anyone trapped in a fire to see the firefighters.

Wissell spearheaded the application process, inviting departments across the South Hills to join the application for the regionalized award. Kirwan Height, Rennerdale and Oakdale responded. The departments submitted information on populations, calls and injuries.

He said many departments are moving toward applying for the grants together as departments rely on each other more for mutual aid.

Brown said the new air packs will save the departments money in the coming years.

“Older packs tend to nickel-and-dime us,” he said. “This will definitely save us on maintenance costs in the future.”

Wissell estimated the departments will save a combined $130,000 over the next seven years in maintenance and yearly equipment testing and certification.

He said that while the award will go a long way, the departments are required by the grant to match 5 percent of the award — about $15,000 — that had not been in their budgets.

“In the volunteer fire service, the only thing that is really free is the firefighters' labor,” he said. “We need, if anything, our members of the community to step up – our fund drives are more important this year than ever.”

Megan Guza is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5810 or mguza@tribweb.com.

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