Unique partnership leads to a regional recruiting and retention grant

A county-wide effort results in a $4.3 million SAFER grant to fund recruitment and training of 500 additional volunteer firefighters

Numerous times, I have heard individuals complain that their area just doesn’t have the resources to assist with a project. This article provides insight into a unique partnership that developed to help address the recruiting and retention problems volunteer fire departments were facing in one Pennsylvania county.

In the spring of 2016, nine volunteer fire departments in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, southwest of Pittsburgh, gathered to discuss a regional application to the SAFER Grant Program for a recruiting and retention initiative in their coverage area. Seated in the audience at this meeting was Regis Synan, a member of the Board of Directors of The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County. He had been invited to the meeting by the president of one of the participating volunteer departments.

Community Foundation garners support

Community foundations are instruments of civil society designed to pool donations into a coordinated investment and grant making facility dedicated primarily to the social improvement of a given place. Community foundations are a global phenomenon with 1700 existing around the world (of which over 700 are in the United States).

When the meeting concluded, Synan approached the presenter, and said that he felt that this was a project that the Community Foundation should be involved in. He invited the presenter to attend a meeting with the staff of the Community Foundation.

The Foundation was concerned because they realized that the volunteer fire service is such an integral part of a community. Not only do fire departments provide fire suppression, rescue, first response and fire prevention education services, but they also provide a venue for community groups to meet, a location for polling places, a site for dinners and parties, and a place of shelter when needed. If the volunteer fire department goes away, so do these things.

If the Foundation was going to be involved, its members wanted this to be a county-wide effort. They wanted there to be a seamless recruiting and retention program across the county. This posed a problem because nine departments were already planning a SAFER application and the county’s other volunteer fire stations would need to be contacted and their interest evaluated before the project moved forward.

County bands together for SAFER application

Following the Foundation meeting, the nine departments met and decided not to pursue a 2015 SAFER grant, but to be part of the countywide effort. The Community Foundation provided a $10,000 planning grant to undertake a survey of the fire services in Westmoreland County. Decoplan Associates, LLC, conducted the study.

According to their research, more than 62 percent of participating departments’ annual budgets comes from fundraising. Two departments in the survey receive no municipal funding, and rely solely on their own fundraising to cover their budgets. Volunteer fire department officials cited the time commitment, lack of awareness of the need and budgetary constraints as the main factors responsible for declining numbers of volunteers.

Since the 1980s, the traditional blue-collar economic base of coal mining and heavy industry in western Pennsylvania has faded, and some fire departments report having no members who work within their coverage areas. Firefighters who work in the Pittsburgh area but live in Westmoreland County spend a disproportionate amount of time commuting to and from work, and are less able to leave work for an emergency call than in years past.

Volunteer fire departments also report that many of their members hold two jobs, and many have spouses who work full time. The survey found that this factor has resulted in a 16 percent drop in the number of firefighters through the past decade. The survey also found that 80 percent of the county’s fire departments do not consistently meet National Fire Prevention Association standards for staffing and response.

As a result of this process, 83 of the county’s fire stations agreed to participate in a 2016 regional SAFER grant application hosted by the Hempfield Bureau of Fire.

SAFER grant funds recruitment efforts

FEMA announced a $4.3 million SAFER Grant to fund recruitment and training of 500 additional volunteer firefighters for the county.

The SAFER grant will fund advertising and marketing for a recruitment effort, as well as safety gear purchases for current personnel and those who join. To encourage retention, the grant also will cover training opportunities, tuition reimbursement and insurance policies. A salaried administrative assistant and program manager will be funded for the duration of the four-year grant period.

“We recognized the significance of this investment in Westmoreland County and the potential it has to help volunteer fire departments build upon their rich tradition of selfless service,” said Phil Koch, executive director of the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County. “The SAFER funding allows us to create an awareness campaign to attract volunteers, and to provide all of our firefighters with safety equipment, physical exams and training they need to protect Westmoreland County residents and themselves.”

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