by LEIF GREISS – TRIB LIVE
As volunteer fire companies across the country struggle to retain new members, the Leechburg Volunteer Fire Company is taking a proactive approach to keep more young blood in its ranks.
The fire company will be offering a tuition reimbursement plan and a scholarship-based junior program to help recruits pay for higher education.
“Retention has been a problem with newer members, because of the time restraints from the amount of fundraising and the amount of training required, so we are trying to offer incentives,” said Brian Scott, president of the Leechburg fire company.
The reimbursement plan and scholarship are funded by the fire company. Money awarded to recipients will vary depending on funds available at that time.
Scott said he expected recipients to be awarded $500 to $1,000 per year through the reimbursement plan and, for scholarships, from $250 to $500 per year.
The money awarded through the scholarship, which is offered to high school students, will accumulate. The total amount will depend on how many years they are part of the program before graduating.
For example, if $500 is awarded per year, a recruit who enters the program as a freshman in high school can expect to get a $2,000 scholarship when he or she graduates.
The reimbursement plan is exclusively for students pursuing higher education. It requires 200 hours of service per year — less than four hours per week.
Scott said he hopes the reimbursement plan and the scholarship will bring in at least eight new recruits per year.
INCENTIVES DRIVE VOLUNTEERS
Programs and scholarships like the ones Leechburg is offering are needed to recruit and retain new volunteers as the ranks of volunteer firefighters dwindle nationally and statewide.
Tim Solobay, state fire commissioner, said in 1976 the state had more than 300,000 volunteer firefighters; now there are fewer than 50,000.
Despite this, volunteer fire companies save the state $9 billion to $10 billion per year in personnel costs alone, Solobay said.
Scott said of the Leechburg fire company’s current 31 members, only four are under the age of 30, with the majority of volunteers older than 50.
“Our members are getting older,” Scott said. “We need a younger generation to come in and take over.”
Barriers to entry for new volunteers can be intimidating, though. While there are no state or federal certification requirements in Pennsylvania to become a volunteer firefighter, most fire departments require some form of certification, which can require hundreds of hours of training, Solobay said.
However, in and around the Alle-Kiski Valley, Leechburg isn’t alone in offering incentives for those pursuing higher education to volunteer at their local fire departments.
Allegheny County offers the FireVEST scholarship, which pays for tuition and books, for volunteer firefighters attending Community College of Allegheny County.
Anne Tanski, workforce development division project manager at the college, said scholarship programs like FireVEST do bring in, retain and train new recruits with little or no firefighting experience.
FireVEST has gotten 70 new recruits for county fire stations since it started in 2009 and more than 330 students have received the scholarship. Presently, there are 97 active FireVEST students in the county.
“I’ve had some fire chiefs say if it wasn’t for FireVEST, they wouldn’t have a department,” Tanski said.
Similarly, Westmoreland County offers the Edward Hutchison Volunteer Firefighter Scholarship. It waives either half or all of tuition costs to Westmoreland County Community College for volunteer firefighters that apply.
Outside the area, other volunteer fire companies offer similar incentives to get those pursuing higher education. Indiana University of Pennsylvania students who already have experience as volunteer firefighters are offered limited free housing if they join the Indiana Fire Association, said Bill Simmons, association president.
Since 2006, the fire association has been offering six beds in one of its fire stations free of charge to students who are volunteers at their home fire companies and sign up with the Indiana Fire Association.
Besides giving the students a place to stay and getting them involved in the fire association, Simmons said there are practical advantages to having several firefighters in the station at any given time ready for any emergencies.
“There was a fire in an apartment building about 2 miles from the station,” Simmons said. “They were able to get to the building in only a couple of minutes and pulled a guy out of bed and saved his life. That’s something we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.”
Simmons said the program has been very successful in getting new recruits. The housing is great for the student volunteers and their families, too.
“I had a mother call after her son had graduated and she said if her son hadn’t stayed at the fire station, he could not have finished at IUP because they couldn’t afford the cost of housing.”