(Part 1 of a series)
52 weeks a year, without fail, Dan Stack and Shawn O'Brien meet for at least two hours every Tuesday evening to train with their colleagues of the Highland Volunteer Fire Company in McCandless. It's a significant time commitment for anyone, but for volunteer firefighters throughout western Pennsylvania, that's only the beginning.
When a young man or woman decides to be a volunteer firefighter, they are sent to the Allegheny county fire academy for a minimum of 166 hours of initial training.
"It's broken down into four 4 modules," said Stack, who is also the McCandless Fire Marshal. "They learn introduction to firefighting, fire ground support, exterior firefighting, interior firefighting. Recruitment and retention remain the biggest challenge not only for us, but for firefighters throughout this area. It's unfortunate that people just don't have the time to commit to something like this."
O'Brien, Deputy Chief at Highland, said recruitment is aimed at the young.
"We have a junior program, 16 - to 18 year olds, and if we can recruit them, we can keep them," he said. "We host a lot of scout troops, boys and girls, to talk about what it means to be a firefighter. Anything we can do to keep reaching out at all times because none of us are getting any younger."
After recruiting and retaining members, the next big challenge for volunteer fire companies is finding the money to pay and maintain hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment:
- Turnout gear (pants, jacket, helmet, gloves, boots) $1,500 - $2,000 per each firefighter
- Self contained breathing apparatus: $2,500 each
- Pumper truck: $450,00-$500,000 each
- Aerial Truck: $1,000,000
- Vehicle Rescue Truck: $750,000
O'Brien said the three McCandless companies, Highland, Peebles, and Ingomar, depend on three main sources of funding.
"We get a set amount each year from the town of McCandless," said O'Brien. "We conduct one, direct mail fund drive and we work very hard to getting federal and state grants."
Even though volunteer fire companies can't offer its members money, and make incredible demands of their time, they can offer something intangible.
"You get that sense of belonging, that sense of duty to the community," said O'Brien.
Tomorrow: video of firefighting training in action.
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