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January 6, 2005

GSPIA Study to Evaluate FEMA’s Grants Program for Firefighters

A blaze breaks out in a suburban section of Pittsburgh. Firefighters turn out in updated protective clothing and pile into a ladder truck and a water truck. Soon after the first fire company arrives on the scene, the police scanner buzzes with confirmation that the blaze is a working house fire. Requests for back-up assistance from neighboring fire companies follow.

Perhaps more than 30 firefighters show up for a typical house fire in southwestern Pennsylvania. What is not so apparent is that many of the firefighters are volunteers wearing turn-out gear that costs upwards of $1,000 per person and driving in trucks priced minimally at $100,000 each. Behind the scenes are countless coupled with grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide the money necessary to buy that equipment.

A research project at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) will survey firefighters throughout the state, and possibly the country, to see how much the FEMA assistance to firefighters grant program is helping firefighters and what else is needed. The $750 million grant program is designed to assist local fire departments in protecting citizens and firefighters against the effects of fire and fire-related incidents.

Those FEMA grants are incredibly valuable to local fire departments, according to G. Reynolds Clark, Pitt’s vice chancellor for community and governmental relations and fire chief for Franklin Park Volunteer Fire Company No. 1. Although not part of the GSPIA research program, Clark and volunteer firefighters in the Pitt community and elsewhere are always on the lookout for money for their fire departments.

“The FEMA program has been a phenomenal boost to the volunteer fire service, whether volunteer or paid,” said Clark, whose company has applied for the grants – unsuccessfully – for three years in a row. Clark added, however, that there is frustration with the FEMA grant evaluation process.

Pennsylvania is a prime location for study as the state brings in both the greatest amount of dollars and the highest number of FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grants in the country. In 2004, more than 388 fire companies in the state received more than $31 million through the grant program, according to FEMA officials.

Pennsylvania may swamp the FEMA grant competition every year because of its high percentage of volunteer fire departments: According to FEMA officials, about 95 percent of fire protection in Pennsylvania is provided by volunteers, much higher than national average of about 75 percent.

“We want to gauge the effectiveness of that FEMA grant program,” said Melissa Evans, a visiting researcher working at GSPIA. Evans is also a fire program specialist assistant with FEMA region III in Philadelphia. She expects to finalize the scope of her survey this month or February.

FEMA grant assistance helps with everything from paying to upgrade firefighters’ gear, trucks and modifications to fire stations such as a vehicle exhaust system . “The program pays for protection for firefighters, outfitting them with appropriate gear and equipment such as a thermal imaging camera,” Evans said.

For example, among this year’s grantees, one of Indiana Township’s four fire departments received a FEMA grant for $71,303, with much of it going toward personal protective equipment for firefighters.

“We have to update equipment frequently – for example, we need heat detectors that will sound an alarm if a firefighter doesn’t move inside a structure,” said Robert Connamacher, emergency management coordinator for the township and a volunteer firefighter for almost 30 years. He also is Pitt’s outreach coordinator at the School of Medicine Office of Student Affairs/Diversity Program.

Over the years, Connamacher’s fire company, Rural Ridge (of Indiana Township), has received FEMA grants but the need continues to raise money to pay for new equipment.

“We have a bingos, spaghetti dinners, oldie dances – we have things going on all the time to raise money. Being a volunteer firefighter is almost a full-time job. You have to raise money, then someone has to spec out a new truck and don’t forget we always have to train as firefighters,” he said.

As a firefighter for Franklin Park for 26 years, Clark agreed there’s no getting around the constant need for new equipment and updated gear – the fundraising to make it happen. “Over the years, fundraising has helped the company – it’s been a catalyst to remind us all that we don’t just fight fires but pour our hearts and souls to have the financial resources to carry out our mission.”

-Mary Ann Thomas

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 9

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