Pa. Groups Take Initiative to Grow Volunteer Ranks

July 03--An innovative partnership that will unite all of Butler County's fire departments, county government, the Butler County Community College and Cranberry's biggest nonprofit agency will work toward raising a half-million dollars to fund the purchase of a mobile firefighting training center as well as to provide economic incentives for the recruitment of volunteer firefighters.

The "Volunteer Firefighter Initiative" was announced at a joint press conference Tuesday morning at the BC3's Butler Township campus where the college's safety training facility is located.

The project, which will operate under the primary direction of the nonprofit Cranberry Township Community Chest, has multiple facets, all aimed at increasing the pool of volunteer firefighters throughout the county.

"It's well documented that there's been a dramatic decline in volunteers. In 1970, there were 300,000 volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania. That number is dropped to under 50,000. We see this project as a way to start turning things around for our community," said Bruce Mazzoni, who chairs the CTCC "project of the year" efforts. The Volunteer Firefighter Initiative has been announced as the next CTCC project of the year. The agency recently completed its 2014 effort -- installation of outdoor fitness stations at two Cranberry parks.

One aspect of the new initiative is the purchase of a mobile firefighting training center that will be owned and maintained by Cranberry Township but will be available to the fire departments throughout Butler County. The Fire Chiefs Association of Butler County is part of the partnership supporting the initiative.

"This is something that holds so much potential for our county," said Butler County Commissioners Chairman Bill McCarrier, who had become a volunteer firefighter at the age of 18 and who served as fire chief for the West Sunbury volunteer department for many years and is a past president of the Fire Chiefs Association.

The mobile training center will be used not to train firefighters so much as to train members of the community -- similar to the kinds of mobile units that have been used in some areas at local elementary schools to emphasize the "stop, drop and roll" response to a house fire. But, Mr. Mazzoni and Mr. McCarrier agreed that training center, which would be dispatched to area businesses and civic groups, can be tapped as an exhibit for community events. The community will become more educated and fire-savvy and the mobile unit will be a good public relations tool, the men anticipate.

"It can be a recruitment facility, in and of itself," said Mr. Mazzoni, who credits Cranberry Supervisor and firefighter Bruce Hezlep for coming up with the idea of purchasing the mobile unit. It will cost about $130,000. Topics such as disaster recovery, the operation of fire extinguishers, response to tornado warnings would be covered for free.

Meanwhile, the firefighters staffing the mobile unit would be pitching the idea of volunteering to those who participate in the programs based there.

That's where the economic incentives, training and BC3 enter the picture.

Mr. Mazzoni and Mr. McCarrier said free fighter training -- to be offered at either the BCE safety training facility or at Cranberry's own firefighter training center -- will be offered. And those who agree to undergo the training, would get scholarship money to attend BC3 and to pursue a degree or classes of the volunteer firefighter's choosing.

"This would be offered to anyone of any age, but we're anticipating that we could get a lot of young people involved in this kind of community service and then tie in the scholarships at BC3 in exchange for the (firefighter certification that requires about 170 hours,)" Mr. Mazzoni said.

The amount of the scholarship is yet to be determined but it could range from $1000 a year to $3000 a year -- which is the approximate price of a county resident attending BC3 full-time for two semesters.

"It's a win for everybody,'' Mr. Mazzoni said: the community becomes trained in dealing with disasters; the fire departments get a mobile training center to make use of for education and public relations; the potential for recruitment rises due to the publicity that is generated by the mobile center and the scholarships that are offered; BC3 has the potential boost enrollment at its college and training at its safety facility; fire departments get more certified firefighters; those firefighters can go to college at a reduced cost; the public benefits not just through education and a more robust firefighting departments but also through decreased home insurance rates for having access to a well-staffed volunteer firefighting company.

"This will be a big boost to the county in so many ways," Mr. McCarrier said.

Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9180.

Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or at 724-772-9180.

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