By Konstantine Fekos
Editor’s note: Knowing the hard, unpaid work that area volunteer fire departments put in day after day, The Meadville Tribune is publishing a four-day series to depict just what it takes to be a volunteer firefighter. We’re also publishing this series as a public call to action to help the volunteer departments, which are always in need of funding and more firefighters. Today’s story focuses on the Crawford-Venango Fire School, which is next in session on Sept. 6 and 7.
Most if not all volunteer fire departments exercise basic training for recruits and veterans alike, keeping firefighters sharp for the multitude of emergency scenarios they could face out in the field.
Safety skills may be advanced through classes and drills set up at the Crawford-Venango Fire School, which offers yearly sessions to volunteers and even fire officials willing to expand their knowledge or brush up on uncommon yet possible emergencies.
“When it comes to fire prevention, we certainly want (fire department) members to participate to the fullest and safest extent,” said Peter Albaugh, Summit Township fire marshal and fire school committee member. “In volunteer fire department operations, we don’t subject you to something you don’t have experience in.”
The school held more than a dozen classes last fall, covering a variety of lessons and hands-on exercises from basic firemanship and pump operations to arson investigation and emergency medical treatment, covering just about every base of emergency response.
Other courses teach specialized information, including differences on historical and modern construction, which can help prepare firefighters for situations like building collapse in older structures, for instance.
The fire school facility, located in Cambridge Springs, is the main area utilized for classes. Other remote locations are sometimes used for controlled burns and other simulations.
Although these courses are of the utmost importance to volunteers and anyone pursuing a career in fire protection, Albaugh said, fire officials are noticing a downward trend in participation and volunteerism, a problem for the school and departments in general.
“The lack of available, qualified people is probably the biggest problem with volunteer fire departments in Pennsylvania,” Albaugh said. “Some departments are OK on money, some aren’t. All struggle for volunteers.”
Many fire school training courses require a minimum of six state-qualified instructors to operate, but some classes over the years have been canceled due to insufficient participation.
The other issue hurting school participation is purely financial, according to Albaugh, since fire school isn’t free and most of the burden falls on departments to pay for their members.
“Money is not always available for upfront scheduling fees,” he said. “Training used to be free through (Butler County) Community College. State cutbacks and lack of reimbursement ruined that.”
In order to maintain self-sufficiency, Albaugh predicts more departmental outreach for public support and state aid in the future. Other potential remedies include tax exemption and reimbursement for fire school participation.
“It’s harder to get people to participate in fire schools anymore,” Albaugh said. “It’s harder to attract people who have the time to get the training they need.”
Albaugh believes that despite economic and financial hardship, communities must support their fire departments, which in turn must support fire schools in order to provide the best possible service.
“Municipalities, townships, etc., are liable by law to provide our services,” Albaugh said. “There’s no way a lot of communities can afford to replace us if we go away.”
Plans in motion for this year's fire school
The Crawford-Venango Fire School Committee recently met to start planning for the 2014 school, which is Sept. 6 and 7.
A tentative list of classes to be offered this year include, introduction to basic firemanship, firefighter survival, emergency vehicle driver training, structure burn (looking for an acquired structure), 11 things a firefighter or fire officer must know, fire police (communication and public relations), incident safety officer, pump 1, pipe line emergency (ethanol foam), confined space rescue, and aerial apparatus practices. The class list may change or have more classes added.
The committee is always looking to offer training classes that the volunteer firefighters need or are interested in taking.
Volunteer fire department chiefs and firefighters can email committee member Pete Albaugh at email@example.com or any other committee member with suggestions, questions or request for information about fire school.