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$1 million in federal grants aid local fire companies

More than a dozen local fire departments have received almost $1 million in federal grants this year.

The U.S. Fire Administration, an agency organized under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, distributes the money to fire companies to use for operating equipment and training.

Since the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program began in 2001, almost $1.6 million has been funneled into local fire departments. With more than two months to go in this year's round of awards, Valley departments already eclipsed the 2002 total of $634,000.

Statewide, more than $24 million has been distributed to fire companies in 2003, about 8 percent of the national total to date.

Fire companies in all four of the Valley's counties were awarded grants, bringing this year's total to about $950,000.

Six local companies in Allegheny County received grants totaling $350,000, including more than $100,000 to the Renton and Logans Ferry volunteer fire departments in Plum.

West Deer No. 3, with its $76,000 award, will be buying new self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) -- the face masks and tanks that allow firefighters to breathe in smoke-filled buildings -- and about 25 sets of new rescue gear, according to Chief George Billett.

Billett said the company is comparing brands and prices now for the breathing apparatus, which he said run around $1,000 each. He expects the members will decide on a product within a few weeks.

In Armstrong County, local departments received more than $200,000, including a $60,000 grant to North Apollo Volunteer Fire Department.

Chief Cliff Rearic said the department has purchased 11 new SCBAs with top-of-line face masks and air cylinders.

"They're the latest models," Rearic said. "We got the good stuff. We're always trying to keep safety in mind."

Along those lines, North Apollo also purchased some computerized training programs and radio equipment, Rearic said.

As with many departments, Rearic said he wouldn't have been able to purchase so much at once without the grant.

"It gets tougher every year, both financially and with manpower," said Rearic, who is serving his 13th year as chief. "It doesn't stop."

Billett in West Deer agreed: "We would've needed to order some new masks and (air) bottles soon," he said. "But we wouldn't be getting all this."

Another Armstrong County company, Kiski Township's fire department, will use its grant money to purchase a system that refills the breathing apparatus, according to company President Rich Frain.

Frain said the company also will use its $46,000 to buy rescue equipment similar to the Jaws of Life, which helps cut open a vehicle so rescue crews can access people trapped inside.

Buffalo Township Volunteer Fire Department received $97,000, the largest grant locally.

Chief Corey Comperatore said the biggest chunk of the grant will buy new radios and pagers in preparation for Butler County's soon-to-be upgraded radio dispatching center.

Comperatore said without the grant, the company likely would have to acquire a low-interest state loan to buy the equipment, which he estimated would cost more than $50,000.

Buffalo also will buy a thermal imaging camera, new hoses and valves.

Comperatore said the camera, valued at about $12,000, will not only assist firefighters in determining hot spots in a building, but also can help find people lost in the woods.

"We often call in Sarver or Saxonburg (volunteer fire departments) to assist us because they have cameras," Comperatore said.

Along with Buffalo, Winfield Township Volunteer Fire Department was the other local Butler County company to be recognized.

Winfield Chief Kevin Smith said the company will spend its $40,000 grant on 10 new air packs to replace current version that are more than 10 years old.

In Westmoreland County, five local companies were awarded nearly $260,000 in grant money. Those companies included Allegheny, Bell and Washington townships, Lower Burrell No. 2 and West Leechburg.

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