Penn Hills Deputy Mayor Sara Kuhn with members and trucks from all seven fire companies.
By Tina Calabro
Penn Hills Councilwoman Sara Kuhn is on a mission. She wants to make sure the community is aware of the work of its volunteer fire departments and shows that appreciation by making a donation.
The effort began last summer when Mrs. Kuhn, who also is deputy mayor, met with the chiefs of Penn Hills' seven fire stations. She learned that over the past few years, community donations have declined severely while the costs of maintaining services have risen.
Soon after that meeting, Mrs. Kuhn began reaching out to Penn Hills residents at school board meetings, churches and other gathering places with a simple message: Make an annual donation to your local volunteer fire company so it can continue to protect you.
"Donations are down and people don't realize what's facing these departments," Mrs. Kuhn explained.
Although volunteer firefighters are not paid, she said, running a fire department is not cost-free. Buildings and vehicles must be maintained and insured. Personnel must be properly equipped.
The cost of outfitting a firefighter is $4,600. A new truck is upwards of $750,000. Utilities at a fire hall can run $15,000 a year. Even vehicle maintenance is costly. An oil change on a fire truck is $120; a new tire is $200.
Volunteer companies everywhere are hit with these expenses.
"People assume the volunteer fire department will always be there, but that's not necessarily true," Mrs. Kuhn said.
She tells residents that if each of Penn Hills' 20,000 households made an annual contribution of $30, $40 or $50 -- amounts suggested on the annual appeal that fire companies mail to residents -- the problem would be resolved.
A donation of $30 from each residence would add up to $600.000; a $40 donation from each would bring in $800,000; and $50 per residence would equal $1 million.
Volunteer departments have a long tradition and many of Pittsburgh's suburban communities have them. In Allegheny County, only Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg have paid firefighters.
These volunteers do more than fight fires. Each goes through 219 hours of training. Many also acquire specialized training.
For example, firefighters at Penn Hills #227 on Universal Road are trained to do rescues. In addition to being on call, each volunteer participates in monthly meetings and drills as well as work details.
Penn Hills allocates a sum for the fire departments in its annual budget, in addition to covering fuel for fire vehicles and Workman's Compensation contributions.
In 2007, Penn Hills' seven fire companies shared an allocation of $208,000 -- an amount that is "nowhere near what the cost is," Mrs. Kuhn said.
When people ask why Penn Hills does not have paid firefighters, Mrs. Kuhn points out that a paid company would cost each taxpayer far more than the requested annual donation.
Ed Turpin, chief of the Universal Road Volunteer Fire Department, said the 2007 operating cost for his unit was $72,000. His company has 18 firefighters and serves 1,850 households.
Fire hall rentals and the company's fundraising mailer garnered about $21,000. The municipal contribution and grants for specific projects brought in about $15,000.
The hole: about $35,000.
Mr. Turpin, a firefighter for 20-plus years, agrees that the work of volunteer fire departments is not well understood or valued by the community, including its businesses.
It also bothers him that the state does not recognize firefighters by providing a minimal retirement fund to those who dedicate their lives to serving.
He and Mrs. Kuhn note that the number of volunteer firefighters is decreasing, even as the number of calls for help is increasing. At a recent school board meeting, Mrs. Kuhn urged officials to consider offering an introductory course for high school students who are interested in firefighting. This type of course is offered in the Highlands School District
"Becoming a volunteer firefighter is a huge commitment and they are not paid a dime," said Mrs. Kuhn. "When the alarm goes off they leave their homes and families. These are the heroes in the community."
To make a tax-deductible donation to a fund that will be shared equally among all Penn Hills fire departments, send a check, payable to "Penn Hills Volunteer Fire Association," to Penn Hills Volunteer Fire Association, P.O. Box 27129, Pittsburgh, PA 15235.