Pa. Fire chiefs discuss funding, staffing and safety at Wilkes-Barre meeting

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WILKES-BARRE — The number of career fire chiefs from across the state visiting the city for a conference was just as impressive for their host as the list of speakers.

City of Wilkes-Barre Fire Department Chief Jay Delaney said 36 members of the Pennsylvania Career Fire Chiefs Association have registered for the two-day meeting.

Delaney, who is president of the association, offered to sponsor the meeting, which was held at the Best Western Plus Genetti Hotel & Conference Center downtown. The Association last met in Wilkes-Barre in 2016.

“We have grown a lot over the years. So when the career fire chiefs of Pennsylvania ask the fire marshal to come, he will come,” Delaney said.

Acting Pennsylvania State Fire Marshal Tom Cook addressed the group Thursday morning during the instructional training session. Friday was scheduled as a working day for the leaders to discuss legislation and other matters.

Cook, who traveled from Harrisburg, discussed funding, training and recruiting issues.

“For the volunteers, it’s an absolute, ‘We can’t find people.’ For career departments, they are also struggling to recruit,” Cook said.

The Commission has added a Recruitment/Retention Manager to address the issue.

“So we’re going to start polling and finding out what’s really going on and trying to gather data before we start throwing money at an issue,” Cook said.

As the Feb. 4 deadline nears to apply for a share of the $560 million in Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Staffing Grants that will be awarded this year, Tina Godfrey provided instructions on the application.

Tailor apps with specific information, rather than including a list of national statistics, advised Godfrey.

Applications are peer reviewed by departments nationally. A fire department in Alaska operates differently than a fire department in Pennsylvania. “So you have to paint your picture for your fire department,” Godfrey said.

Godfrey, section chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Firefighter Assistance Grant Program, made the trip from Virginia.

“This year, of all the other years, is a great year to apply because we have a lot more money to give away,” Godfrey said. Funding was increased by $200 million through the U.S. Rescue Plan’s pandemic relief assistance program.

Of the total, 80% of SAFER grants will go towards hiring for career fire departments. The remaining 20% ​​will be split equally between volunteer recruitment and retention and hiring for all-volunteer and majority-volunteer services. The grants pay salaries and benefits for three years. About 500 grants will be awarded nationally, Godfrey said.

But Delaney and Dan Kerrigan, chief of fire and emergency services for Upper Providence Township, Montgomery County, pointed to disparities in the distribution of grants between large and small departments and called for changes to the legislative and programmatic levels.

Delaney provided a letter he sent in October 2021 to FEMA noting that for fiscal year 2020, Pennsylvania only received 0.9% of the hiring grant funding. There were 977 applications requesting $1.8 billion in funding. Of the $319.5 million available, $155.7 million went to 17 departments which each received over $5 million. Boston tops the list with a prize pool of over $24 million.

Kerrigan reiterated what Delaney said in the letter. “The big picture is that we need to impress upon Washington that the fire departments are critical infrastructure,” Kerrigan told Godfrey.

“We need to be treated on the same level as the military and police services,” Kerrigan added.

The SAFER program is ‘hyper-focused’ on standards related to structural fire deployment as all risk management departments do much more to deal with hazardous materials, flooding and even medical emergencies from the outbreak of fire. opioids, noted Kerrigan.

In its 2020 annual report, the City of Wilkes-Barre Fire Department said it responded to 4,083 calls, compared to 4,174 in 2019. Only 126 calls were fires in 2020. Rescue and emergency services medical accounted for the majority of calls at 2,131.

Wilkes-Barre received a $1.1 million SAFER grant in 2016 to retain six firefighters. The grant covered salaries and benefits for two years. In 2014, he received a $1.2 grant to add eight firefighters.

Delaney said the information provided by Godfrey was timely because the department will be requesting SAFER funds.

“That’s why it was really good knowledge to help us write a better grant application,” Delaney said.

Contact Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.

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