Lack of manpower becoming a concern for Penn-Trafford area fire departments
By Chris Foreman
Published: Wednesday, April 3, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Last summer, the Trafford Fire Company moved from a crumbling, mold-infested fire station on Duquesne Avenue into the new multimillion-dollar public-safety building on Brinton Avenue.
But the new station hasn't attracted a slew of new volunteer firefighters to the department.
Though the company counts 11 active firefighters and two retirees who are able to go on calls, the number of available responders usually is down to only one, two or three during daylight hours on weekdays, Assistant Chief Tom Dobrinick said. The department's chief, Brian Lindbloom, once the borough's code-enforcement officer, now has a full-time job as a firefighter paramedic33 miles away in Peters Township.
Membership levels go through cycles, but the number of active volunteers generally has ranged between 10 and 20 over the past decade, Dobrinick said. On a late-morning call on March 26, only Dobrinick and one other firefighter were free to respond to a trailer fire in nearby Larimer.
“That's the way of the world, unfortunately,” said Dobrinick, a funeral director who is the only regular volunteer firefighter who works in the borough. “We don't have the luxury of 25 people in the department, and they all work in town.”
Over the past three years, Trafford's department has “scratched” its response for only two calls, Lindbloom said. But both of those instances — which Lindbloom said were “extremely minor” incidents that borough police handled — were this year.
“With us, it doesn't happen hardly at all,” Lindbloom said. “It's volunteer service. That's the nature of the beast. Everyone has a job or two jobs or three jobs.”
Some council members are growing worried about Trafford's fire-protection services, Council President Richard Laird said. He said he's not confident there are enough firefighters available for calls.
“We have a concern, and we don't know where we're going on this,” Laird said.
Without assistance from neighboring departments such as Level Green and Paintertown, Laird said, “we'd be up a creek.”
With a statewide decline in volunteer firefighters since the 1970s, Trafford's problem isn't unique, first-responders said.
State Fire Commissioner Edward Mann, who still serves as a chief in his Mifflin County township, estimates there are 50,000 to 60,000 volunteer firefighters today. Three decades ago, there were 300,000.
Some departments have had to consider mergers or consolidations to be able to provide for their residents, he said. Mann suggests that state legislators need to create some incentives to encourage more people to sacrifice their time and safety to serve as firefighters.
“Other than a sense of pride or giving back to the community, the fire-service community doesn't have anything tangible that they can give back to individuals,” he said.
In nearby Manor – which, like Trafford, has fewer than 4,000 residents – the volunteer department's website lists 32 active members. But department President Mike Radakovich that number is deceiving.
Only about a dozen are regularly are available for calls, he said. For daylight calls on weekdays, that number dips to single digits, with eight being the best-case scenario.
Radakovich said his department is considering having a membership drive to draw more volunteers.
“We're having the same manpower problems that other communities are having,” he said. “Daytime calls are the hardest for everybody, and we're no exception.”
Trafford firefighters also are brainstorming ways to increase their roster. For the past few years, they generally were focused on fundraising for equipment and putting about $150,000 into the public safety building.
In late spring or early summer, the department plans to conduct a citizens fire academy to teach fire safety, let residents learn about the gear and equipment, and explain the training firefighters go through, Lindbloom said.
“Hopefully, what we'll do is pique the interest in somebody and maybe recruit somebody out of the class,” Lindbloom said.
Council's concern about the Trafford department's manpower issues comes after Lindbloom's brief candidacy for a council seat and mayor. He filed nominating petitions to run this spring as a Republican in both races but had to withdraw because Peters Township requires its employees to resign before becoming a candidate for public office.
Lindbloom, hired in September, recently completed a six-month probationary period and will be required to live in the township or one of the adjoining communities, Peters Township manager Michael Silvestri said. Lindbloom said he has a place near the Peters Township station for times when he has an overnight shift there, but he intends to remain as chief in Trafford.
“As long as they need me, I'm going to try and help them,” Lindbloom said.
Dobrinick, a 19-year firefighter in Trafford, said he remains “very confident” in Lindbloom's leadership of the Trafford company. Though Lindbloom has to be in the Peters Township area for some shifts, he spends most of his nights at the Trafford station, he said. “There's never been a doubt in my mind,” Dobrinick said. “I have 100-percent confidence in him and his skill and training and ability.”
An Allegheny County public official and consultant for ambulance services and fire companies said he doesn't see a problem with a fire chief working in another community.
J.R. Henry, mayor of West View, said a chief typically doesn't respond to every call anyway, and departments set up hierarchies in which an assistant chief or captain would provide leadership at a scene.
Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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