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Volunteer fire departments are, like many businesses, short staffed

Like many businesses, volunteer fire departments are short staffed.

Unlike many businesses posting “Help Wanted” signs in their windows, this staffing shortage has plagued local departments for decades.

“Our region is at a very trying time with the volunteer fire service,” said fire Chief L.C. Otto, who heads Adah Volunteer Fire Company in Fayette County. “It takes a lot of dedication to get the training. We have enough bodies showing up. It’s just tough to get qualified guys.”

The number of volunteer firefighters nationwide has steadily declined in recent decades. When the National Volunteer Fire Council began tracking volunteer firefighters in 1983, it reported 884,600. According to its most recent data, volunteers hit an all-time low in 2017, with just 682,600 volunteers nationally.

And the numbers keep dipping.

The Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute reported a total of 38,000 volunteer firefighters in 2018, down nearly 50% from the 60,000 statewide volunteers reported in the early 2000s.

“It is a dangerous occupation, even though it’s volunteer,” said Canonsburg fire Chief Tim Solobay. “We don’t get a paycheck. You volunteered when you walked through the door. After that, it becomes a commitment.”

The commitment is more than 200 hours of initial training, monthly business and weekly training or work detail meetings. There’s also an occasional continued education course and weekend trainings. Because volunteer fire departments operate largely on donations, firefighters spend a lot of time fundraising, hosting cash bashes and manning tables at community events.

And then, of course, firefighters respond to calls.

Cokeburg volunteer fire Chief Dave Lambert said his staff of about 25 firefighters dedicates an indeterminable number of hours monthly to service.

“We train every other week for a minimum of three to four hours a night. That’s not counting our events,” said Lambert. “We average probably anywhere between eight and 11 calls a month.”

Solobay said his department responds to between 250 and 300 calls every year, a number kept lower than nearby career or combo (career plus volunteer firefighters) departments by limiting the types of calls Canonsburg’s VFD answers.

Even so, Solobay’s volunteers dedicate a lot of their free time to fire service.

“Right now, I’m over 9,000 hours that the (volunteers) have put in over the year,” said Solobay. “We’ll average between 12 and 15,000 hours a year.”

Otto’s volunteers are busy, too. His staff of 24 volunteers responds to about 150 calls annually – including all calls within Adah’s four-street municipality – and often assists nearby departments.

“We kind of go everywhere. We respond to about 40 structure fires a year, which is a lot for a very small volunteer fire department. We have one of the only ladder trucks on our side of the county,” Otto said. “Unfortunately, we’re very rural so we have to respond to a lot of the unnecessary things, like the trees down, stuff like that. If we don’t, we may not be able to exit our community. We’re kind of a one-way-in, one-way-out type of area.”

Cokeburg also takes calls for everything from tree and wires being down to accidents, medical events and fires. Lambert said he’s lucky to have a crew of younger volunteers with flexible schedules who can respond to calls around the clock.

“A few years ago, our numbers were a little bit lower. We’ve been fortunate to pick up about eight to 10 new members in the last year and a half,” said Lambert, who noted between 13 and 17 of his firefighters arrive on scene to nearly every call.

Although local departments are staffed, Otto said “you can never have enough” volunteers.

“The stats show the number of people that are willing to volunteer now, they dropped tremendously,” said Lambert. “There isn’t very many incentives for the young people to do it.”

All three fire chiefs agree modern life, with its shifting family dynamics and work responsibilities, plays a large role in the decline of volunteer firefighters.

“People’s lives have become busy,” Solobay said. “A lot of times people work out of the community that they live in. There’s travel time; it limits the availability they have to give back.”

Departments offer incentives to volunteers as thanks for their hours of work. Lambert allows each firefighter one free hall rental annually, Otto hosts cookouts and pizza parties for volunteers, and Solobay offers a benefits package.

While recruitment efforts like billboards, social media campaigns, Canonsburg’s YouTube videos and Cokeburg’s membership drives increase awareness, Otto said the best shot volunteer fire departments have at attracting more members is through legislation.

“We really need to get with our legislators and state representatives and local municipal officials to try to find a solution,” said Otto. “I think that if we could offer a pay-per-call program or offer some sort of financial incentive for college assistance, you may be able to get younger people to volunteer.”

Lambert agrees.

“I don’t expect the government to hand tons of money out. If they would offer free vehicle registration if you’re an active member, or a discount on your car insurance,” that might attract interested volunteers, Lambert said.

“I am very fortunate that (my employer) gives me the ability to respond during the day. If more employers would be willing to let their employees respond during the day,” perhaps that would encourage more folks to join their VFD, he added.

Like other local fire chiefs, Otto believes there’s a solution to the volunteer firefighter shortage.

“I’d really like to see people from our region get together, get a list of goals to fix this,” he said.

Troubled student loan forgiveness program gets an overhaul

The Biden administration is temporarily relaxing the rules for a student loan forgiveness program that has been criticized for its notoriously complex requirements – a change that could offer debt relief to thousands of teachers, social workers, military members and other public servants.

The Education Department said Wednesday it will drop some of the toughest requirements around Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a program that was launched in 2007 to steer more college graduates into public service but, since then, has helped just 5,500 borrowers get their loans erased.

Congress created the program as a reward for college students who go into public service. As long as they made 10 years of payments on their federal student loans, the program promised to erase the remainder.

But more than 90% of applicants have been rejected. After making a decade of payments, many borrowers have found that they have the wrong type of federal loan or repayment plan to be eligible for the program. Thousands have ended up stuck with debt they thought would be cleared.

Under the temporary changes, those borrowers will now be eligible to get their loans erased.

Through October 2022, borrowers who have worked 10 years in a qualifying job will be eligible for loan relief no matter what kind of federal loan or repayment plan they have.

Past loan payments that were previously ineligible will now count, moving some borrowers closer to the finish line.

The change will immediately make 22,000 borrowers eligible to get loans canceled, and another 27,000 could become eligible if they get previous payments certified, according to the department. In total, more than 550,000 borrowers will be moved closer to forgiveness, the agency said.

“Borrowers who devote a decade of their lives to public service should be able to rely on the promise of Public Service Loan Forgiveness,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said. “The system has not delivered on that promise to date, but that is about to change for many borrowers.”

It’s a particular boon for borrowers with Federal Family Education Loans, from a defunct loan program that issued federally backed loans through banks. Loans in that program, which ended in 2010, were previously ineligible but can now be cancelled through the updated rules.

Among other changes, the department will allow military members to count time on active duty toward the 10 years, even if they put a pause on making their payments during that time.

And starting next year, the department will automatically count payments by federal workers and military members toward the required 10 years. Under existing rules, applicants have to apply to get their payments certified.

The changes are seen as a short-term fix while the agency considers permanent improvements through a federal rulemaking process. The department started holding hearings this week as part of a process that could bring sweeping change to federal student aid programs, including the public service benefit.

Advocacy groups praised the temporary changes. Aaron Ament, president of the legal group Student Defense, which has represented students in lawsuits over the program, called it a “huge step in the right direction.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the change is welcome.

“Today we breathe a collective sigh of relief as the Kafkaesque system that dashed the dreams of far too many finally starts to be dismantled,” she said.

The program has been a source of bipartisan scorn – Democrats and Republicans have agreed that the program is flawed and needs to be updated. But Republicans said the Education Department is overstepping its authority by moving to alter a program that Congress created.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the top Republican on the House education committee, said President Joe Biden’s administration is “circumventing Congress through executive action.”

“We agree this program is in desperate need of reform; however, such reforms require Congressional action, and we encourage you to work with us to fix the federal loan and repayment program,” Foxx said in a letter to Cardona.

It marks the latest of several attempts to fix the program. In 2018, Congress set aside $700 million to temporarily expand the benefit to all types of loans and payment programs, but after a year, most applications were still being denied.

A report from the Government Accountability Office found that President Donald Trump’s administration had created a “confusing and inefficient” process that often disqualified borrowers for rules they were never told about.

In June, a report from the Education Department drew attention to the program’s shortcomings saying it “has spawned much confusion and frustration” while forgiving loans for just 5,500 borrowers.

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Beech Hollow power plant project canceled after operator withdraws permit
  • Updated

The Beech Hollow natural gas-fired power plant proposed in Robinson Township has been canceled after the operator withdrew its permit last week, prompting state environmental regulators to terminate previous approvals of the project.

Robinson Power Co. LLC notified the state Department of Environmental Protection on Sept. 29 that it was pulling the air quality permit on the proposed 1,000-megawatt power plant that has been modified multiple times since it was originally proposed nearly two decades ago.

The cancellation came shortly after a Philadelphia-based environmental group challenged the developer’s air quality permit that the DEP reauthorized in June, claiming it was a “zombie” project because its scope had changed and Robinson Power had failed to begin construction. The Clean Air Council appealed the permit in August and then sent a letter to the DEP last week notifying the state agency about the changes to the project.

Robinson Township resident Cathy Lodge, who is a member of the Clean Air Council and a longtime opponent of the project, called the permit termination “a huge victory for the health of my community,” according to a press release from CAC.

“Having one fewer polluting fossil fuel facility in Robinson Township is an important step in the right direction,” Lodge said in a written statement. “Finally, the PA DEP listened to the facts and did the right thing by canceling this permit.”

In a joint press release from the Clean Air Council and the Environmental Integrity Project, the organizations said they notified the DEP on Sept. 28 that Robinson Power had withdrawn its request to connect with PJM Interconnection’s regional electricity grid, received a return of its construction escrow and did not begin building in accordance with its permits. The environmental groups indicated that Robinson Power had all but “abandoned” the Beech Hollow project and DEP should revoke the permits.

The following day, Robinson Power sent a letter to DEP that it was withdrawing its permits for the project. The DEP responded the same day, sending correspondence to Raymond J. Bologna, the principal owner of Robinson Power, notifying him that they were terminating their authorizations in response.

“Local residents made all the difference in uncovering facts that were instrumental in DEP’s final decision to cancel this project’s permit,” said Lisa Hallowell, senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, which assisted the Clean Air Council on the challenges.

Bologna did not respond to a phone message seeking comment Wednesday, and no contact information for Robinson Power was listed in DEP documents except for a P.O. box address in Hanover Township.

The project has been under scrutiny for years as it shifted from using coal waste stored on the property as fuel, then later a combined version of coal refuse and natural gas to its most recent plan to building strictly a gas-fired power plant. It was unknown if Bologna may modify the plans once again or end his bid to build a power plant on the 59-acre tract between Route 980 and Candor Road.