A list of issues laid out in a 2018 gap study focusing on Hempfield’s fire service is leading the path for changes that will eventually make 12 stations fall under one department and firefighters answer to one chief.
The study, completed by The Allegheny Group, focuses on issues with staffing, training and leadership. Director of Emergency Services Anthony Kovacic took the recommendations in the study and created long-term and short-term goals for the department.
To start, the township will focus on service agreements signed by each station that would set guidelines for the amount of training each firefighter should have and township regulations for applying for grant money.
A draft of the agreement has three sections: what stations must do to remain active and in good standing, what stations receive from the township and what happens if a station does not remain active.
“I think the most important part right now is this service agreement,” township Supervisor and board chair George Reese said during Wednesday public meeting. “The time has come that the fire service needs to understand what the expectation of the township, the board of supervisors, is. It’s changed. It’s not going to be business as normal.”
But for some firefighters, eliminating the ability to apply for grants is one of the biggest issues with the agreement, said Tom Kline, president of the Fire Chiefs Association and chief of Hempfield No. 2, who said supervisors should consider creating a list of items stations can purchase with the use of grant money.
“It’s basically free money,” Kline said. “I don’t think anybody wants to give it up completely.”
Reese, fire chief at the Carbon Volunteer Fire Department, said moving forward, grants should be the benefit of the Hempfield fire service rather than individual stations. Supervisor Rob Ritson added officials need to decide how far the service agreement will go and list the ramifications if a station does not follow the agreement.
While officials took steps last month to make the service fall under one reporting number — which should help improve the ISO rating, officials said — Kovacic suggested implementing one fire chief and possibly combining fire stations that have low response rates to calls for service.
An April proposal suggested splitting the 12 stations into three zones, each containing four stations. Those stations would have individual leaders to run day-to-day operations. Above them would be a deputy fire chief to handle administration and training needs. That person would report to the township fire chief.
“I think from the beginning with this we were asking for a command structure and having that one chief to oversee everything, that will just make everything a lot easier for everybody,” Kline said.
Other issues the plan tackled was working to fill vacant volunteer firefighter positions by looking to local colleges like Seton Hill University, Westmoreland County Community College and the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg as well as Hempfield Area High School.
Kovacic also suggested a paid, full-time staff that could work daylight hours, hours that are typically difficult to staff, he said, and offering stipends to volunteer firefighters.
He suggested building a training station along Spartan Drive for Hempfield exclusively, rather than relying on Westmoreland County’s facility, and running Hempfield Fire Academy firefighter one and two programs annually along with an annual officer one program.
The plan comes ahead of a September New Jersey-based Insurance Services Office Inc., or ISO — a review that has a direct correlation with a home owner’s insurance rates. In March, supervisors asked for, and were granted, a six month extension prior to the review after regulations changed to focus on primary service areas rather than municipal boundaries.
This means if a station does not have enough manpower for an incident in its coverage zone, it can receive a bad score. In the past, aid from surrounding stations was taken into consideration.
The goal for Kovacic, he said, is to create a plan that will meet short-term needs of the fire service while laying the roadwork for future improvements.