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Grant rescues laid-off firemen

By: STEVE FERRIS Herald Standard

A $630,000 federal grant awarded Thursday to recall five laid-off Uniontown firemen is a "prayer answered."

That was what Mayor Ed Fike said about the $632,835 grant from the U.S. Homeland Security Department's Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program.

"Laying off those firemen is something that has eaten away at me since it had to happen," Fike said.

Fire Chief Charles Coldren said the firemen have been praying for the grant, which provides funding for two years, since City Council approved the application in October.

"We prayed every night and crossed our fingers," Coldren said. "Everyday was a good day we didn't get a denial."

Coldren and Councilman Gary Gearing, the director of public safety, commended working and laid-off firemen for preparing the grant application.

Gearing singled out laid off firefighter Brian VanSickle for credit and Coldren said assistant chief Myron Nypaver and fireman Scott Conn, who were recalled in March, helped "crunch numbers" for the application.

"I can't give them enough credit. Most of the work (on the application) was done here. My job is very easy here due to everyone's dedication," Coldren said. "The fire department stuck together (during the layoffs). We've been struggling since January with limited manpower."

None of the officials said they know when the city will be allowed to begin the recalls and they had some questions about the grant, but all were pleased with the award.

"It's a good day for the fire department," Gearing said. "We should be able to have adequate manpower to respond."

U.S Rep. Mark Critz, who announced the grant award, said many fire departments have been forced to cut staff due to money problems.

"Because of budget constraints, many of our local fire departments, including the Uniontown Fire Department, have been forced to cut back on services and employees," Critz said. "Our first responders work hard, and this grant will allow the Uniontown Fire Department to call back laid-off firefighters so that they can continue to keep our families and communities safe."

The SAFER program is designed to strengthen the nation's ability to respond to fire and fire-related hazards and improve the nation's overall level of preparedness, Critz said.

The competitive grants enhance the ability of fire departments to maintain 24-hour staffing and to assure that their communities have adequate protection from fire and fire-related hazards, he said.

The objective of the program is to award grants directly to volunteer, combination, and career fire departments to help the departments increase the number of frontline firefighters, and to rehire firefighters who were laid-off due to the economy, Critz said.

The fire department had 13 firefighters until seven were laid off in two rounds of city employee layoffs in 2008 and 2009.

Three firemen were among 31 employees laid off in October 2008, a few months after Fike reported that the city was in a financial crisis due to a deficit of more than $1 million caused by unpaid debts from the previous administration.

In February 2009, City Council laid off 10 more employees, including three additional firemen.

Council and the firemen's union, the International Association of Firefighters Local 955 worked out an agreement that resulted in all seven firefighters being recalled later that year, but they were laid off again in December 2009.

Two of the seven were recalled in March this year and one fireman retired this year.

City officials have said that the manpower shortage caused by the layoffs has resulted in $40,000 in overtime wages in the department.

The mayor said the layoffs were painful, but necessary for the city to balance its budget and reduce debt.

He said he worried about the firemen's safety while battling fires without their full complement.

"It was something that has troubled me since the decision was made," Fike said. "God has shined down on our city, the fire department and their families. This is like hitting the lottery."

He said Fayette County Commissioners Vincent Zapotosky and Vincent Vicites wrote a letter supporting the city's grant application.

Gearing said the fire civil service commission would have to begin the hiring process to find a replacement for the fireman who retired this year.

He also said the department's budget will have to be adjusted when the recalls begin.


May 28, 2010