By Jodi Weigand
Robert Gowans moved 600 miles from Berlin, Vt., to join Monroeville Volunteer Fire Co. No. 4.
He wanted to take advantage of the station’s live-in program, which allows him to stay there rent-free while earning his paramedic certification at the Community College of Allegheny County.
“I love going on the calls and I love helping people,” said Gowans, 19, who joined his hometown volunteer fire department on his 13th birthday. “I love the gratification of being the one responsible for getting called when someone needs help. When they call 911, they’re calling me.”
The fire company, like other volunteer outfits in Monroeville, Ross and Penn Hills, implemented a live-in program to make sure the station is staffed at all hours. The number of volunteer firefighters in the state has dropped from about 300,000 in the 1970s to between 40,000 and 50,000 today, State Fire Commissioner Ed Mann said.
The living spaces in the fire stations include a sleeping area, kitchen, laundry and bathroom facilities and a recreation room. Most members have a required number of on-duty hours and are on call overnight.
“They help fill a void that’s being created because not a lot of volunteers work where they live,” Mann said. The setup supplies a steady influx of new members because students usually stay until they finish their degree, then are replaced by others like them.
From 20 to 25 volunteer firefighters live at Monroeville stations 1, 4, 5 and 6, said Doug Cole, chief of Company 4. In addition to being a full-time student (any major is OK), each must become an emergency medical technician and complete the Pennsylvania Essentials of Firefighting training course.
Regular membership hasn’t decreased dramatically in Monroeville, Cole said, but having younger volunteers is an asset.
“Our volunteers are becoming like me — they’re all pushing 50,” Cole said. “The physical stuff is a young guy’s job.”
Why it works
Gowans said juggling classwork, a part-time job and firefighting is a challenge, but he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“These have been some of the better times of life,” he said. “It’s been an awesome experience that I’ll never forget.”
One appeal of live-in programs is that it gives volunteers a sense that they are getting something in return for their service and the time they spend in training, local fire chiefs said.
“The days of coming in at a company meeting and riding on the fire truck that night are over,” Cole said. Firefighters are required to complete the 166-hour state firefighting course plus another 50 hours training to become a basic vehicle rescue technician and another 24 hours for hazardous materials training.
“When you’re volunteer-based you have to juggle that, and if you can’t get certified to do the service that you want to do, you have the feeling of, ‘I’m not getting paid for this, so why am I doing it?'” said Scott Story, assistant chief at Berkeley Hills Fire Department in Ross.
Berkeley has a staffing program that allows volunteers, local police officers, EMTs and paramedics to sleep at the station between shifts, do laundry or eat meals there.
“Ours is geared toward having station staffing better than any other volunteer fire department,” Story said. Six people regularly stay at the station, he said.
Penn Hills Station 221 started a live-in program this year in direct response to declining membership, said chief Shawn Snyder.
From five to eight people regularly stay at the station, he said. Fire and EMS training are required, he said.
“The No. 1 thing was to increase volunteers and provide a better service to the community and a more rapid response,” he said. “It’s definitely better than what we had in the past. The volunteers were dropping off, so we took a step to correct it and so far, it’s worked.”
People count on volunteer firefighters to protect them, Gowans said. He’s concerned that shortages put lives at risk.
“My department back home has five people on it, and you can’t fight a fire with five people,” he said. “When you are a true, real volunteer fire department, when people stop their lives and come there, and you have two or three people showing up for a call — that’s when firefighters get killed. That’s when citizens get killed.”
Local live-in volunteer firefighter programs generally give first consideration to those with fire and EMS experience, though they do not require it. In exchange for living rent-free, firefighters undergo training, respond to calls and help maintain the living quarters. All applicants must be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma or GED.
• Monroeville Volunteer Fire Co. No. 1: Call Chief Brian McCollum at 412-824-1122 for more information or visit www.mvfc1.com.
• Monroeville Volunteer Fire Co. No. 4: Call Chief Doug Cole at 412-372-4404 for more information or visit www.mvfc4.org/residency.html.
• Monroeville Volunteer Fire Co. No. 5: Student members must attend a local college or university full time. Others must work at least 32 hours a week. Call Chief Ron Harvey at 412-372-4444, ext. 10 for more information or visit www.mvfd5.com/live.php.
• Monroeville Volunteer Fire Co. No. 6: Call Chief Harold Katofsky at 412-373-0333 for more information, or visit www.mvfd6.com.
• Penn Hills Station 221: Full-time live-in members are required to be on call a minimum of 40 hours a week, including sleep and work hours. They must work at least 20 hours a week or maintain at least part-time status at a local college or university. Part-time live-in members may not stay more than three days a week. Call Chief Shawn Snyder at 412-241-9285 for more information, or visit www.phvfd221.org/livein2.php.
Berkeley Hills Fire Department: Call Chief Paul Hill at 412-366-2910 for more information, or visit www.station247.org.