Officials probe why so little of $4.3M Westmoreland firefighter grant has been used
Hardly any of a $4.3 million firefighter grant aimed at benefiting Westmoreland County fire departments has been spent since it was awarded in 2017.
Awarded Sept. 1, 2017, by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant gives departments the ability to improve recruitment efforts and training, implement retention incentives and reimburse tuition fees.
So far, about $100,000 of the money has been used, with 186 volunteer firefighters joining county departments, said Zach Freeman, SAFER grant coordinator. Only 34 firefighters in the county have received physicals, an early priority set by Hempfield supervisors, who were put in charge of the grant after funds were administered through the Hempfield Bureau of Fire.
Officials have until Nov. 24, 2021, to use the money, township manager Jason Winters said, but so far, spending has been off to a slow start.
“Honestly, I think it would probably be linked to some turnover,” Freeman said. “That just always sets things back. Now that I’m in place, I’m pretty confident we’re moving in the right direction.”
Last year, the fire bureau was put on a hiatus, stopping the township’s 12 departments from recruiting new firefighters or providing training services. Supervisors at the time attributed the interruption in services to a need for board members to regroup and discuss what the bureau will look like in the future. The fire bureau was reinstated a little over a month later.
Now that Freeman is in place, he said programs are starting to come together. Once they all kick off, the money will be spent quickly. Freeman already has marketing scheduled to go out in the spring, communications planned with medical facilities to schedule physicals for firefighters and meetings set up with local fire departments to discuss necessary recruitment and retention programs.
The marketing effort will focus on recruiting people between the ages of 18 and 35, along with women and veterans.
A 2018 gap analysis report for Hempfield showed the majority of the firefighting force was older than 45.
“It is clearly evident that within the next five years, the departments within the township will face a ‘critical’ manpower shortage,” the study stated.
This week, Hempfield supervisors voted for the manager to advertise a request for proposal for marketing the grant.
SAFER grant meetings also are scheduled throughout March, starting with four fire departments – Sardis Volunteer Fire Department, Ligonier Hose Co. 1, North Hempfield Volunteer Fire Company and Mt. Pleasant Volunteer Fire Department.
Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, [email protected] or via Twitter .