Tricia Pursell – The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pa.
Posted: Tue, 03/29/2011 – 12:23am
Updated: Tue, 03/29/2011 – 09:48am
March 28–Crucial firefighter training has been free ever since most Valley emergency responders can remember, but that’s changing.
With state funding slowly being directed elsewhere, local all-volunteer companies — already strapped for cash and facing decreasing numbers — may soon be forced to pay for their own training.
Fire officials are not sure how they will handle the extra costs, but are studying solutions that include company consolidations.
Most public safety training is provided by community colleges, such as Harrisburg Area, Bucks County and Luzerne County.
But safety training has ended up on the back burner as more and more people are going to back to school for job training to cope with the rough economy.
The cost for public safety classes had been reimbursed to individuals through money available for full-time equivalency programs. That money is now being funneled from the state Department of Education directly to the community colleges, and it is up to the colleges to determine how the money is spent.
“Our concern is that as more money is used for other programs, there will be less and less money for public safety programs,” said George Stapleton, administrator for the Office of the State Fire Commissioner. “We do have a concern where it could get to the point where it becomes so expensive, that training isn’t being conducted because they can’t afford it.”
“I do foresee it coming down the road,” agreed Erik Markley, Beaver Springs fire chief, of the added strain on funding efforts. He said he is “crossing his fingers” on his company continuing to receive a state fire grant that is available every year to volunteer fire companies.
Derick Shambach, Snyder County’s EMA coordinator, said, “We’ve been in contact with the fire commissioner and some different universities that we use for instruction. We’re not exactly sure yet how it’s going to affect everything.”
But he knows things won’t be the same for very long.
“I’m under the impression at this point, that the days of instructors coming out and doing a class for free, paid by the university, are pretty much over.”
There are ways to minimize costs if an entire department books a class, usually limited to 30 people at one time.
“We’re exploring everything we can to either keep the cost nothing or very minimal for each individual person or for each company,” Shambach said. “They are volunteers; they make their money through fundraisers.”
Sunbury has about 75 active firefighters in six stations. According to Fire Chief Dean Weirick, the city has standard operating guidelines with two requirements for firefighters: HAZMAT training that is mandatory at the federal level, and 166 hours of basic essentials training.
This is the first year that HAZMAT training requires the purchase of textbooks at $60 each.
A firefighter training program in Bucks County, according to John “Jack” Grove, deputy chief for Hummels Wharf, will begin charging this summer. Harrisburg Area Community College is the process of setting up contracts to charge for its courses. So far, Luzerne County is the only college that does not charge for training — but that likely won’t last for long.
Grove said the Hummels Wharf company is looking at the option to buy 200 hours of training for $800 a year at the Bucks County program.
“We’ve talked to county commissioners, the Fire Chief’s Association — and hopefully among all of us we can put together the money to at least pay for 200 hours.”
While there is no state requiement that firefighters need to have formal training, Grove said they prefer at least some training in order to help around the station.
At Mifflinburg Hose Company, it is required that firefighters receive the minimum level of training available, although most of the current volunteers are certified, said Fire Chief John Heiges.
“They’ll never pay for (training) themselves,” he said. “The department would find a way to pay for it.”
In Beaver Springs, Markley said regular training is held at the station on Monday nights. But it’s not with a formal instructor. Those who have had the training share what they have learned with the newer members.
“We feel we get the message across in a safe manner,” he said.
Stapleton said, however, that there are constant, continuing demands on fire departments.
“Training has evolved to where there are standards that need to be made to have a safe and trained firefighter,” he said.
Their concern is that with added costs for training, those standards will be impacted.
The only positive in all of this, if there is any positive at all, Markley said, is through money that volunteer fire companies can receive through the Fireman’s Relief Fund, which can be used for training expenses.
“Which is fine,” he said, “but that money is also used for a number of other things, such as purchasing equipment or vehicles.”
Stapleton acknowledged the financial squeeze.
“They have to prioritize,” he said.