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Funding emergency

| Wednesday, April 12, 2006, 12:00 p.m.

Last month, emergency medical technician Frank Thompson spent $400 of his own money to buy bandages, instant glucose pills and ice packs.

It was necessary, he said, to keep Evergreen Fire Company in Ross from losing the rapid-response medical team he heads.

"The fire company helps out when it can, but any money they spend on the quick-response service (takes) away from buying boots and breathing masks for the firefighters," Thompson said.

These are troubled times for many volunteer-run fire stations in Allegheny County and across the state, which are short of volunteers and cash for training and other expenses.

Volunteer firefighter ranks dropped more than 50 percent statewide over the past 25 years, from 150,000 in 1980 to about 60,000 today. The reasons are varied. People might be hesitant to join, officials say, because they have limited personal time, work outside the communities where they live and have other options for volunteering.

At the same time, training requirements have doubled. In addition to 80 hours of basic training, recruits since the Sept. 11 attacks spend 80 more hours learning responses to potential chemical and terrorist attacks.

As the pool of people shrinks, and training and equipment costs rise, more municipalities are considering paying for fire protection, as Mt. Lebanon does. Others, such as Ohio Township, extract money from the local portion of property taxes. Monroeville includes fire equipment in its capital budget.

"It costs us $80,000 a year before we take a single truck out the door," said Tom Larkin, a 40-year volunteer with Ohio Township. "We used to go door to door to collect funds, but now we get a little bit of help from the municipality, which means we get a little help from everyone."

In West Deer, supervisors and firefighters persuaded voters in November to approve a per-building tax that aims to collect $240,000 for the township's three fire companies.

"We have a mechanism in place now that helps our volunteer fire departments grow as our municipality grows," said Bob Tanilli, vice chairman of the board of supervisors. "We're a growing community and every new house, new business funds this tax."

The state provides $115 million in grants and loans to emergency responders, and a commission formed by the Senate two years ago created another $25 million in grants.

But $25 million doesn't go far. Divided among Pennsylvania's more than 2,400 volunteer companies, it amounts to $10,000 each - enough to purchase a full set of protective gear for one firefighter, said state Sen. Sean Logan, D-Monroeville, co-chairman of the Senate's fire and emergency caucus.

"We as a state need to make some incentives for these folks who volunteer," Logan said of bills before the Legislature that suggest giving volunteer firefighters financial breaks. "The public needs to embrace these changes. When people call from their homes in an emergency, it's generally a volunteer coming to help."

Those who answer the call say the work is incredibly rewarding.

Marshall Boone, 65, a longtime Monroeville firefighter, still recalls rescuing a woman's pet bird from a burning apartment building.

"It was about 15 years ago, and we were at Cambridge Square," Boone said. "They were all applauding when I brought the cage out."

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