Scholarship programs attract, train tomorrow’s firefighters

By RITA MICHEL – PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE


Many volunteer fire departments in the region are looking for ways to attract new — and keep old — members. And a unique scholarship program at Community College of Allegheny County is helping.

The only program of its kind in the state, FireVEST —  which stands for Fire Volunteer, Education Service and Training — is a partnership among CCAC, the Allegheny County Executive and the Allegheny County Fire Academy. Individuals enrolled in the program receive a full scholarship to any associate degree or certificate program at CCAC as well as training at the Allegheny County Fire Academy in exchange for a five-year service commitment as a volunteer firefighter within the county.

The scholarship enabled Matthew Davis of Dormont to obtain his associate degree in fire science administration in 2012.

“It definitely helped me build a foundation to continue my college career and move on with my fire service education,” he said.

Mr. Davis, who became chief of the Dormont Volunteer Fire Department in January, went on to earn his bachelor’s of science in public administration with a concentration in fire service administration from Point Park University in 2014. He is now working on a master’s in business administration at the National Fire Academy’s executive fire officer program in Emmitsburg, Md. He attends two weeks per year and follows up with applied research projects.

More than 330 volunteer firefighters have participated in the FireVEST recruitment and retention program, which has been offered since 2009. These scholarship recipients serve in 136 of the county’s 187 volunteer fire departments.

Mr. Davis said he encourages his firefighting colleagues to take advantage of FireVEST.

“We’ve had about a half-dozen people go through,’’ he said.

Chief Gene Marsico of the Aspinwall Volunteer Fire Department also tells his young firefighters to take advantage of  FireVEST as well as his own department’s special live-in program.

He called FireVest “great … you can get your associate [degree] for free and you are ready to go.’’

Jake Poznik, a 2017 graduate of Fox Chapel Area High School, is the department’s latest junior member to participate. Jake’s younger brother, Pat Poznik, also a junior firefighter who will be a senior in the fall at Fox Chapel Area, is looking into the program, too.

Pat, a mid-fielder on Fox Chapel Area’s lacrosse team, said he enjoys his role in the Aspinwall department. He most likes going on calls and working with other members of the company.

“There’s a lot of good people there,” Pat said.

Junior Zachary Goreczny also followed in his brother’s footsteps when he joined the department at age 15, nearly three years ago. “It’s a great group of people,” said the rising senior, who is a sprinter on Fox Chapel Area’s track team.

One of the youngest junior firefighters is Katie Palumbo. She will be a junior at Fox Chapel Area next school year and plays on the volleyball team. She said she will list her volunteer service at the Aspinwall fire company on her resume when she applies to the U.S. Air Force Academy.

“I have to volunteer in the community,” she said. “I chose firefighting because I will be protecting people and know they have firefighters in the Air Force.”

Katie said she wants to fly fighter jets and “to defend my country and keep the world a good, safe place.”

While junior firefighters are kept safe from danger on calls, they attend training every Tuesday at the Aspinwall Station 102 on Commercial Avenue, where they learn how to do checks and use equipment.

They also participate in mock drills, scale ladders and use the hoses at the Pittsburgh Police and Fire Training Academy on Washington Boulevard.

“It was fun,” Katie said. “I got to hit the hydrant.” That’s firefighter lingo for using a large wrench and special coupling to turn on the water. Manning the hose requires teamwork, she said.

And, ‘’it’s a rush when you have to get to the station and put on gear.’’

Katie said she understands that being a firefighter is first and foremost about saving lives. “Time is not on your side, so you rush.”

Chief Marsico has been rushing to protect lives for 30 years. “I was born and raised in Aspinwall. As a boy, I would run to see where the trucks went when that whistle blew.”

Right now, 40 people are on the Aspinwall department’s roster, and about 20 of them are active. To grow the department, Chief Marsico actively recruits students age 14 through college.

In addition to training and scholarship opportunities like FireVEST, Aspinwall has a live-in program to attract new members. About six years ago, according to the chief, members converted the old firehall into five college-style dorm rooms. Currently, three of the five rooms are filled, so there is space for two more students.

Shannon Connoly of Boston, who is a student at the University of Pittsburgh and a paramedic, has lived there for more than a year.  She is one of five women in the department and among the live-in members who have access to a weight and recreation room as well as a quiet study area.

Chief Marsico, who attended Pitt’s volunteer day, said he often attends such events in search of new members. He said his station is on three bus lines to Downtown and to Oakland, so it’s convenient for students who would like free room and board in exchange for four hours on-duty time five days a week as well as basic housekeeping of the station and maintenance of the fire equipment and apparatus.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald noted that Allegheny County’s volunteer fire departments protect more than 910,000 people and save the county an estimated $60 million a year.

Some 69 percent of firefighters in Pennsylvania are volunteers and that FireVest is ‘’just one way we can thank them for heir work and service,’’ Mr. Fitzgerald noted in a news release.

Details: Sandy Bayer, Allegheny County Fire Academy, 412-931-3158 or firevest@alleghenycounty.us.

Rita Michel, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.