These days, Penn Hills firefighters are doing much more than responding to emergencies.
In addition to fielding about 3,500 calls each year — about 10 every day — volunteer firefighters and chiefs are tasked with fundraising and recruiting more people to do what they do.
With the number of volunteers dwindling and funding a constant challenge, Penn Hills fire officials are planning to offer perks for potential candidates, exploring new funding options and pursuing a state study to help them address their biggest needs.
The number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania has been on the decline for years for several reasons, including greater time demands, an aging population and societal shifts.
Penn Hills, with a population of about 41,000, is not immune to the problem.
Penn Hills Fire Marshal Chuck Miller said there are about 180 active volunteer firefighters who serve across the municipality’s six stations.
Five years ago, that number sat closer to 220, said Bill Jeffcoat, chief of Station 227 on Universal Road. Since then, many have aged and become life members of the Penn Hills Fire Association, who don’t have to respond to every fire call.
“You can never have enough (volunteers),” Jeffcoat said. At his station on Universal Road, 75 percent of the 47 volunteers have full-time jobs, making it difficult to find volunteers during daylight hours.
Lack of manpower was the principal reason Penn Hills closed one of its fire stations — Universal Fire Department 226 — in December 2016.
Two of the six fire stations in Penn Hills offer a live-in program, which offers free room and board at the fire stations for college students interested in firefighting. Council also allocated $53,000 to its fire services last year to fund the purchase of a truck for training purposes and six freight containers that can be arranged to simulate emergency scenarios.
The municipality is looking to secure $320,000 in grants to build a pole building and heated garage — also for training purposes — to be located near the freight containers on the Penn Hills government complex on Duff Road.
Jeffcoat also is working to secure a tax break for about 120 of the municipality’s 200 volunteers. If approved, a qualified volunteer’s earned income tax, about $948, would be waived.
All of those projects are being done in an effort to attract additional volunteer firefighters. More manpower would allow stations to fight more fires and spend less time running fundraisers, he said.
“We sent out 7,300 letters asking for a donation last year. Out of those, we had a 14 percent return rate. It’s a shame; it really is,” Jeffcoat said.
The alternative, Miller said, is to start paying firefighters.
“But if we ran a paid fire department, it would be an astronomical number,” he said, estimating the cost would be somewhere in the ballpark of $17.6 million yearly. “So when they’re out there trying to get donations, it’s in our best interest to donate.”
The ‘magic number’
With more money, the municipality’s fire stations could update aging equipment. Finding parts to repair aging fire engines is difficult and costly, Miller said.
“Most are over 20 years old,” he said. “There may be one or two that are 19 or 18 years old. But we only have one that meets the (National Fire Protection Association) standard.”
Miller said there is not a penalty for being in violation of the standards. But the longer fire departments wait to replace those vehicles, the more expensive they become to maintain. They also become less safe, he said.
“It’s just like a car. Older cars don’t have the safety features that a new one does,” Miller said.
According to the NFPA, fire engines should be replaced every 20 years. Other specialized equipment, such as ladder trucks, should be replaced every 25 years.
There are 12 fire engines serving the six Penn Hills stations and two ladder trucks. One of the ladder trucks is a 2009 model; the other is a 2017.
Miller said the “magic number” that would make him feel comfortable to operate the municipality’s fire services at full potential would be about $1.4 million per year.
“That would be enough to make sure we’re providing new equipment and putting protective gear on the 10-year rotation. It would also take fundraising stress off (firefighters’) backs so they can focus more on fire,” Miller said.
Council allocated $50,000 to all six Penn Hills fire stations, for a total of $300,000 in 2019. Other expenses, such as Miller’s salary and various equipment debt payments, bring the total fire budget to $673,000.
Miller understands budget restraints, but he said that amount doesn’t cut it.
“That’s barely covering operations. A new fire engine is $500,000,” he said.
‘Planning for the future’
Moving forward, Penn Hills has asked the state to put its fire services under the microscope.
Municipal officials hope the study would offer Penn Hills fresh ideas on how to keep and attract volunteer firefighters and get recommendations on how to receive additional funding.
Council voted unanimously in December to ask the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development to send a third-party entity to commence the study.
The probe would take a deep dive into the municipality’s six fire stations to make updated recommendations on equipment and manpower needs, Municipal Manager Scott Andrejchak said.
“It’s basically a tool for us in terms of planning for the future,” he said of the study.
Miller said the last comprehensive look at the municipality’s fire services occurred in 2007. Since then, volunteer numbers have dwindled while the general cost of living — and the cost of fighting fires — continues to rise.
“This will let us know what we’re doing good, what we can sustain and what can improve,” Miller said.
Jeffcoat, who was one of the fire chiefs who suggested to Andrejchak and council members to look into commissioning the study, hopes it will shed an accurate light on the status of Penn Hills fire services.
“It’ll provide the most accurate and up-to-date portrait to our residents as possible. Residents don’t want to pay more taxes, and we understand that. It’s challenging … but we’re hoping this will shed some light,” he said.
Jeffcoat and Miller did not know when the study could start.
“Nothing on the government level moves fast. We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing,” Jeffcoat said.
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, email@example.com or via Twitter @dillonswriting.