Penn Hills makes progress on fire training academy

August 17, 2018
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Penn Hills’ roughly 200 volunteer firefighters from six stations are one step closer to having their own training facility, a project that has been in the works since 2015.

Bill Jeffcoat, fire chief of Station 227 on Universal Road, said he and a group of chiefs purchased a $20,000 fire truck from a station near Harrisburg in July. The 1993 truck will be used for training purposes at a facility to be housed behind the newly-built municipal center.

“For its age, it only has 23,000 miles on it and about 2,000 pump hours,” Jeffcoat said of the truck. “So there are very little hours on it - not a lot of wear and tear.”

Getting the truck was part of an ongoing effort to create a training facility for the municipality’s volunteer firefighters, headed by the Fire Academy Committee - a group of Penn Hills fire chiefs and Fire Marshal Chuck Miller.

The idea for a training facility was sparked when the municipality purchased the 16-acre property that now houses its municipal center in May 2015.

Penn Hills allocated $53,000 this year for the project, which includes the truck and six freight containers that trainers can be arranged to simulate different emergency scenarios.

“The biggest thing is having something in our backyard,” said Miller. “We’ll have no cost for traveling to another location for training, which is just additional time to be away from their families.”

Miller said volunteer firefighters must go through 166 hours before they can serve, not counting additional time required when getting national certification. Penn Hills firefighters go to Westmoreland County or other facilities located elsewhere in Allegheny County. They also train in homes scheduled for demolition, which is a safety hazard, Miller said.

The training facility will not just save money for existing and potential firefighters -- it could be a revenue source, Miller said.

“We’d be able to host our own training where we could have a rental fee for our facility. I know a lot of them do that. You’re not going to make a ton of money doing that, but it takes some of the burden off taxpayers,” he said.

Jeffcoat said the freight containers have been purchased and should be delivered to the municipality by the end of the year. The next step, he said, is obtaining grant money to fund the construction of a pole building and heated garage.

The Fire Academy Committee applied for a $320,000 grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources earlier this year, Jeffcoat said. He expects the agency to announce winners of the grant by early 2019.

“That money will allow us to make additional improvements to the freight containers, too,” Jeffcoat said. Such improvements could include installing exterior stairs to the containers if they are stacked for a building fire simulation, he said.

As the municipality waits for money to build a garage and pole building, the new fire truck will be housed at Station 227 and be used to respond to emergencies, Jeffcoat said.

The training facility will be safer for trainees and the environment, too, Jeffcoat said.

“We bought six freight containers. So we could stack them up if we wanted three high, two, then one. And they’re not burnable. It’ll be a simulated smoke environment, using water vapor instead of real smoke,” Jeffcoat said.

Mike Stedleman, assistant fire chief at Station 225 on North Robinson Boulevard who is also part of the Fire Academy Committee, said the ultimate goal for the training center is to attract more volunteers to service.

“We want top-notch firefighters. And unfortunately, we’re not a slow municipality as far as emergencies go. So you can never have enough training,” Stedleman said. “If we provide training to our members and potential members, that’ll make a big difference for our departments to retain membership.”

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