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Hempfield supervisors approved a part-time, paid position for the fire department in a close vote

Hempfield supervisors barely agreed to look for part-time day shift drivers for the fire department who will be paid.

Hempfield supervisors narrowly agreed to look for paid part-time drivers for the fire department's day shift.

This is part of the effort to support the township volunteer fire department's 10 stations as they face challenges with emergency response.

The township has been discussing the future of Hempfield's fire service with firefighters, including a department-wide meeting on March 9. department-wide meeting with township officials March 9.

Hempfield is still promoting the option for stations to be managed by the township to cover expenses. Currently, North Hempfield is the only station not chartered. Fort Allen and Midway-­St.Clair fire stations have expressed interest in coming under township management.

The part-time drivers will help the department during weekday hours, when most volunteers are busy with work, explained fire Chief Anthony Kovacic.

Years ago, there were people working day and night shifts at the fire department, but that's not the case anymore, according to Kovacic. Getting sufficient daytime response has been a challenge for all stations.

After tabling the vote last month, supervisors approved the part-time driver position with a 3-2 vote. Supervisors Doug Weimer, Jay Anderson and Bill Bretz supported the position. Supervisors Tom
Logan and George Reese voted against it.

Hempfield advertised the part-time driver application on its website. The drivers, who will earn $16 to $20 per hour, must be able to operate the fire truck and other essential equipment to suppress fire, rescue endangered individuals, provide care to the ill and injured and help with maintenance and inspection of fire equipment.

Hempfield allocated $81,000 this year to potentially hire four part-time drivers. Township Manager Aaron Siko said the township plans to hire two to four drivers in the first round of applications.

“We’re looking forward to the fact that we are moving forward with these positions,” Siko said. “Our next steps are just continuing to support our chartered and nonchartered station as best we can.”

The drivers will assist the volunteer firefighters who work at the department’s Station 500 headquarters on Woodward Drive, Kovacic said.

Volunteers sign up to staff Station 500 when they are available. The goal is to have staff at Station 500 and hire part-time drivers to ensure a proper response to all fire calls in the township, according to Kovacic.

“The idea is to enhance the current force of volunteers,” Kovacic said. “The person we're looking for should be able to operate the equipment and perform the duties of an interior firefighter.”

Supervisors debate

The supervisors discussed the potential issues with the part-time driver position at previous meetings, including whether hiring paid drivers would be the first step in transitioning to a paid fire service.

The board also talked about federal labor laws, which would prevent a part-time driver from also volunteering at a fire station in the township.

The law says that if a volunteer firefighter makes more than 20% of the salary of a full-time firefighter in the same region, they cannot continue as a volunteer in that municipality’s fire service.

In Westmoreland County, Jeannette is the only municipality with a full-time, paid fire department, Siko said.

“If that volunteer or part-time person exceeds that 20% rule, at that point, they can’t volunteer in their own public station or fire department,” he said.

Weimer believes the paid driver position will advance the volunteer fire service while keeping it in the township.

“This is not a step toward a paid fire department — it’s part of the process of saving the volunteer fire system,” he said. “I look forward to seeing this happen, and I think it’s important for maintaining a safe community.”

Bretz sees the change as a shift to a department with both paid drivers and unpaid volunteers.

“I don’t think we need to become a fully professional department,” Bretz said. “We’re dealing with the challenge we face during the daytime.”

Supervisor Jay Anderson hopes hiring the part-time drivers will improve response times.

“We definitely have a decrease in answered calls during the day, the response to fires, and anything we can do to help decrease the number of unanswered calls I think is a good idea,” he said. “The paid drivers seem to take care of that.”

Improving the fire department’s response is a priority for Logan, but he does not think paid part-time fire positions are the solution.

“I am a 100% supporter of the all-volunteer fire department system. I realize the challenges that they go through. Their commitment to the community is very exemplary. People don’t understand the commitment that they make — and that their families make — to provide that service for our community.

“I don’t feel we’ve done everything we can to support them,” he said.

Offering an incentive like tax relief to volunteer firefighters might be a good way to start recruiting more members, Logan said.

Efforts to address challenges

The most recent vote follows a forum on March 9, where over 70 firefighters and several officials discussed the future of the department and the nonchartered station model.

The township has discussed the process of becoming nonchartered with several stations since the forum, Weimer said, and the initiative appears to be making progress.

“We’ve had more inquiries from the stations about their leadership at the independent stations,” Weimer said. “We have a number of fire companies that are now looking into what it actually involves to join the Hempfield fire service.”

Some fire stations are scheduling meetings with their members to vote on joining fully, he said. Both Weimer and Anderson mentioned that they heard from firefighters who support the paid part-time driver initiative.

“They’re very supportive in general. I had several who came right up to the table after we finished the forum and came up and told us that that is the right move to take,” he said. “Since then, we’ve had continued correspondence from firefighters that it is something that Hempfield firefighters are supporting as part of the plan.”

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