Rural Pa. training program helps fill dire volunteer firefighter, EMS shortage

Officials are sounding the alarm. One educator is looking to the next generation to put out the blaze

By: - May 25, 2022 11:30 am

Connellsville Area Career & Technical Center Protective Services students pose for a group photo with their teacher, Ron Barry, on Tue., May 17, 2022 in Connellsville, Pa. (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

By Jordana Rosenfeld

CONNELLSVILLE, Pa. — For the most part, Pennsylvania’s firefighter and emergency medical technician shortages have become more dire each year. Almost all (96.8%) of the commonwealth’s firefighters are volunteers, and their numbers have been dwindling for decades. But about an hour south of Pittsburgh in Fayette County, a training program is working to help fill the gap.

Public officials first started sounding the alarm that Pennsylvanians, especially those “living outside of cities,” have “woefully inadequate” protection from fire and other emergencies, according to a 1976 report from the Governor’s Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. At that time, the state had 300,000 volunteer firefighters; in 2018, Pennsylvania had 38,000.

Fire companies are not required to report active personnel numbers, so it’s not clear how the pandemic has influenced the size of the state’s volunteer firefighter population.

Connellsville Area Career & Technical Center students Garrett Shearer (left) and Leland Hollis (right) in the Protective Services program pose for a photo with their teacher, Ron Barry (middle), inside the classroom (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

Pennsylvania’s EMS providers say they can’t find enough paramedics or EMTs, and, as Jerry Schramm, director of operations for Lancaster EMS, told PennLive in November 2021, “things are frayed close to the point of collapse.” According to the National Rural Health Association, a lack of qualified EMT applicants is “universal” in rural areas, due to, among other conditions, low and aging populations, fewer qualifying ambulance trips that would allow trainees to earn emergency certifications, and tough economic conditions.

Fire Chief Ron Barry’s protective services program at Connelsville Area Career and Technical Center in Fayette County is one of many local training programs stepping in to address this personnel crisis, recruiting and training high school students to become the next generation of firefighters and EMTs.

During a recent classroom visit, Barry told Pittsburgh City Paper it’s a “three-way program” that includes instruction on firefighting, emergency medicine, and law enforcement.

“We probably do more industry certifications than any other program here. Just because we have a lot of them to offer,” Barry said, referencing certifications for emergency vehicle driving, hazardous materials awareness, and highway safety certifications for emergency responders.

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Fifteen minutes into visiting Barry’s class, a student from another program arrived with an injury he got roughhousing with his brother. Since Barry is a veteran paramedic, teachers send injured students his way when there isn’t a nurse in the building.

“A lot of times, the kids jump right in because they’re trained, and they know what to do,” Barry said, noting that his students are required to become CPR and first aid certified. Barry recommends an 18-year-old junior named Harleigh to wrap the injured party’s wrist.

“This is an industrial school. Accidents happen, kids cut themselves. Culinary, they work with knives; welding, they burn themselves. So, we’re prepared for anything,” Barry said.

Barry’s “shop,” as students call each of Connellsville’s 13 programs, has industry-standard equipment students train on, such as a 911 dispatch station, a fleet of emergency vehicles including a fire engine, a fire hydrant donated by the local water company, full PPE, and a 14-foot rappelling tower made by students from the school’s carpentry program. (Barry adds that masonry students poured its concrete base, and welding students bolted it to the wall.)

Each year, students practice evacuating a burning building using a digital fire simulator that creates harmless special effects smoke so they can safely train in zero visibility conditions. They suit up in full firefighting gear, including self-contained breathing apparatuses, and are also graded on their ability to don their PPE in two minutes or less. The fire simulator has a digital LCD TV screen with a digital flame and the TV is designed so you can blast it with a fire hose and the flame reacts to the water, according to Barry.

“I can make it flare up again,” he said. “I can make more smoke, I can change the fire class from ordinary combustibles to flammable liquids to electrical with sound effects that match.”

Connellsville Area Career & Technical Center student Hannah Upton runs through a mock scenario as part of the Protective Services program inside the classroom (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

A student pops into the supply room to notify Barry that the kid with the wrapped wrist has numb fingers. Barry returns to the classroom and recognizes the patient.

“Oh, so you’re Patrick’s brother,” he said. “You guys have a terrible history with hands.”

“We do,” the student agreed.

“You didn’t punch a wall, did ya?”

“No, I’m not him.”

After looking over the hand, Barry sends a student for an ice pack.

“Should we splint the fingers?” “It’s swollen.” “Yeah, look at the side of his hand.”

Concerned students look on as the group reviews their observations after examining him.

“I told him to straighten his hand a little bit and he was fine and then, once his hand was straight, I put my two fingers on with Harleigh’s help, and he was able to put pressure back at me,” said Garrett, a 15-year-old volunteer firefighter with the Springfield Township Volunteer Hose Company, who’s planning to enlist in the military after high school.

When it comes to recruitment, Barry does more than his fair share to engage potential students.

“Being a fire chief, we need volunteer firefighters so badly,” he said. Recruitment efforts sometimes begin during the annual summer camp he runs for middle schoolers interested in the high school protective services program. The summer camp is a key recruitment tool, according to Shawna Little, the workforce development coordinator at CACTC.

“I will tell you, the people that do middle school camps, their programs are full,” she said. “The ones that don’t are hurting for kids.”

In addition to focusing on recruitment, Little says they’re trying overall to change the stigma of career and technical education, part of which is gender bias.

This year, 60% of Barry’s protective services students are girls, up a few percentage points from last year. Little called these “nontraditional numbers” because most people working in protective services occupations are men.

Barry says that the girls he’s taught tend to be more interested in EMS than law enforcement, but “they like the forensics and CSI, too.”

Makayla, an 18-year-old senior planning to be an EMT, said that “a lot of people think that women can’t be EMTs or firefighters because we’re small. There’s a lot of lifting, but some women really get it done, and it’s awesome.”

“I like helping people and I like that it’s fast-paced,” she said, adding that she also likes knowing that the demand for EMTs is high.

Fayette EMS, one of the protective services program’s industry partners, has hired every EMT graduate he’s ever sent them, according to Barry, who says he’s proud that CACTC has produced “quite a few volunteer firefighters, quite a few EMTs.”

“Every year,” Makayla said, “we get more and more girls, and it’s awesome to see how interested they are.”

Jordana Rosenfeld is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.

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