By Chadwick Dolgos
In response to declining volunteer numbers, three local fire departments have established joint operating procedures to assure each company can meet national response standards.
Fire chiefs from Crafton, McKees Rocks and Stowe expect the newly formed West Hills JOG – a joint operating guideline that predetermines assignments and sets departmental expectations for fire calls – will benefit all of their communities.
“We all agreed that we’re going to make the system better so that all three companies can be better,” said Crafton Fire Chief Mike Crown.
Prior to implementing the West Hills JOG, fire departments operated independently.
Whenever multiple departments responded to a call, they took their lead from whichever municipality was in charge.
Fire officials hope the new protocols will better protect the health, safety and welfare of the firefighters and all others impacted by the fire.
“This system is task-based,” said Donald Baird, fire chief for McKees Rocks. “If everyone responding to an incident has prior knowledge of what is expected of them upon arrival, it allows us to save time and be more efficient when it pertains to saving and protecting lives and properties.”
The guidelines require at least four engines and two ladder trucks to arrive on the scene for every fire call. Each vehicle will carry at least three responders, for a total of 18 on each call.
National Fire Protection Association standards require at least 15 responders for fires in urban areas.
Department officials said the partnership is largely a response to a statewide decline in volunteer firefighters.
“In the old days, you maybe had 20 guys from the department show up for a fire,” Crown said. “Now, you’re lucky to have 10-12, and even that’s high.”
Each unit has its assignments predetermined based on arrival. The chief officer on the scene is responsible for giving assignments, and responders of each unit are trained to know what tasks need to be completed based on what’s assigned.
The fire chief of the municipality experiencing a fire serves as the chief officer on scene by default. If the municipality’s fire chief is unavailable, the first chief responding to the call will take the lead. Prior to implementing this program, captains and lieutenants would take the lead in place of the municipality’s chief.
“Our thought behind this was, they’re a chief in another town so they should be the chief of our town if we don’t have anybody else around,” said Brandon Chapman, assistant Stowe fire chief. “It just makes sense to have somebody that is more experienced or more trained to run the fire.”
The second chief on the scene serves as the safety officer and is responsible for monitoring everything around the fire ground and making sure assignments are being completed safely and efficiently.
While West Hills JOG currently only consists of three fire departments, each municipality in the partnership has outside departments that also respond to their calls.
“Stowe, McKees Rocks and Crafton are all on each other’s assignments,” Chapman said. “There are some outlining departments that are on board and know exactly what to do when they come into our part of town.”
Departments that respond to calls in Stowe, for example, include McKees Rocks, Crafton, Kennedy, Moon Run and the Seville department located near Brighton Heights.
While the latter three are not members of the program, they are familiar with predetermined assignments and the standard operating procedures being set by the guidelines.
Since the implementation of the West Hills JOG, the departments have responded to several fires using the new guidelines. According to Crown, it’s all about trial and error.
“These first couple months are going to be a learning curve until everybody is on the same page,” he said. “I think that, working through the process, it’s getting better.”
West Hills JOG officers say they want to grow the operation to improve fire response practices throughout the area.
“We are hoping to expand it to everybody that the paper covers and then some,” Chapman said.