‘This is sustainability money’ small-town fire companies rely on yearly PA grant to survive

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CENTRE COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ)– The struggle for funding at small-town fire departments is spreading throughout Central Pennsylvania.

But, for most companies in Centre County, a state grant has given them enough money for at least another year.

WTAJ looked into how local departments will look to use this year’s grants.

Every year the PA Fire Commissioner gives all volunteer fire companies the chance to apply for up to $15,000 in grants. For rural companies, this can be about 1/3rd of their total required budget–and is essential to their survival.

Steve Bair, Fire Director for the Centre Region Council of Governments and Chief of the Alpha Fire Company, says he’s lucky enough to be able to put more than $14,000 in grant money towards “fine tuning projects”, specifically new fire hose nozzles which are getting old.

But, Bair adds, a lot of local companies use their grant money for more basic needs.

“For them this is absolutely sustainability money,” he said.

Bair says one of the toughest things for small companies is affording firefighter clothing and breathing apparatus, which are not only expensive… but don’t last very long.

“In 10 years, the clothing I’m wearing has to be replaced, in 15 years the breathing apparatus has to be replaced, so you have these really big ticket recurring expenses coming up. If you’re drawing from a small population with a small financial pool that becomes a big burden,” Bair said.

Still, he says the grant money is unrestricted… allowing all companies the freedom to spend it (within reason) however they desire.

“You describe a project that you want to do… they don’t tell you if it’s good or bad project, they just say okay whatever you want to do, you get to do it,” Bair said.

He added: “This is money for the asking… you have got to go ask for it.”

All but two companies in Centre County asked for grant money in 2020.

The overall grant money given to Centre County Fire and EMS is up $11,000 compared to last year.

Bair says the process of asking for grant money is fairly simple. Companies just have to go online to the PA Fire Commissioners website and fill out a template of basic information.

Bair adds that fire companies are given an edge in funding if they have more than 20 certified firefighters.

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