As the population of Peters Township continues to grow, so do the needs of the local fire department to provide optimal coverage.
Following a suggestion by council member Gary Stiegel Jr., Peters Township Fire Department officials and township manager Paul Lauer worked on formulating a vision for the future.
Fire Chief Michael McLaughlin presented details of what he called an “abbreviated strategic plan” for the next decade during council’s Nov. 18 workshop session, joined by David Caputo, deputy chief, and William Gaughan, assistant chief.
A focus of the plan is delivering service for the eastern part of the township, the population of which has grown substantially over the past few decades. Coverage now is provided from the department’s Station 1, located on East McMurray Road and staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and the unmanned Station 2 at Bebout and Sugar Camp roads.
To improve response times throughout the township, fire officials recommend adding a third station, also to be staffed around the clock. According to Lauer, cost estimates are between $2.5 million and $3 million.
McLaughlin stressed the importance of firefighters having the ability to arrive at scenes expediently, particularly newer homes.
“Modern building construction reduces the time that occupants have to escape a fire,” he said. “They’re stronger as they sit today, but under heat and fire conditions, they’re weaker and they fail faster.”
To illustrate, fire officials showed council members videos of two news reports addressing the differences, with one reporter stating: “Research shows 30 years ago, you had about 17 minutes to escape a house fire. Today, about three or four minutes.”
“That three or four minutes is serious to us, because that’s typically about the time that we’re going through the front door. If there’s a basement fire and we’re going through the front door, we may up in the basement of that because of those floor beams being glued together,” McLaughlin said about a now-commonly used practice. “There’s nothing wrong with how those houses are constructed. It’s just one of those adaptations we’ve had to make in our jobs with how they’re building houses today.”
He cited another crucial situation.
“Response time also matters because in cardiac arrest, you have about a 10 percent chance of survival to begin with,” he said. “Every minute that the patient goes without CPR, that 10 percent drops by 7 to 10 percent from there.”
From the standpoint of adequate staffing, the fire department plan also calls for expanding the number of career firefighters from the current 10 full-time equivalents to 18 within the next decade. Federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grants could cover a substantial amount of the cost.
“We’re in our second SAFER grant cycle right now. We actually have been awarded two of these in the past several years,” Gaughan said
He explained that part of the funding addresses recruiting and retaining volunteers to complement career personnel in combination paid-volunteer departments.
“We shared one with North Strabane, in 2012,” he reported. “We were awarded one on our own for $35,000 a year ago. Since then, we’ve recruited 16 volunteers.”
According to McLaughlin, three-year SAFER grants cover salaries – benefits, too – at 75 percent in first and second years, and 35 percent in the third.
“Is the SAFER grant the end all, be all? No. It can offset costs, but there’s also no guarantee that we’re awarded it,” he told council, but he also said the highest success rates tend to be in connection with opening new stations and adding staff. “Those are the two biggest things they look at.”
With the exception of Upper St. Clair, municipalities along the Route 19 corridor from Washington to Pittsburgh have combination fire departments. According to McLaughlin, their paid full-time equivalents are Washington, 22; South Strabane, 10; North Strabane, 15; Mt. Lebanon, 21; and Dormont, nine.
“Quite honestly, you’re not going to be able to provide good, quality fire service without career firefighters going forward,” Lauer said. “The training commitments are way too high, and no one wants to sit there and wait to see whether there’s going to be a volunteer response depending on which side of the community that you live on.”
As far as financing a new station, Lauer explained that the project on its own would not cost enough to merit a bond issue, and a 10-year loan would represent an annual budgetary item of $300,000, plus interest.
If paying for the fire station would be in conjunction with financing the proposed municipal aquatic center at Rolling Hills Park, a bond issue, at a lower interest rate than a loan, could be the way to proceed.
“It would make more sense to borrow all of that money together and finance this station over its useful life, which is 20 to 30 years,” Lauer said. “We need to finance us in a way that allows those people who are moving in the opportunity to pay for them.”