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When it Comes to Fire Protection, Region Facing Flash Point

by on August 04, 2012 1:45 PM

The current “business” model for delivering fire protection in Centre County is unsustainable, according to Steve Bair, Fire Director for the Centre Region Council of Governments.

He estimates that the region will face a flash point by the year 2016 if nothing changes between now and then.

“The emotions surrounding this debate are based on a belief that you’re not at risk for a fire. But the fact is, you are,” Bair said.

He explained that Alpha Fire Company alone deals with over 1,000 calls each year, going to 800 unique properties.

“So people do call the fire department,” he noted.

Alpha Fire Company is unique in the Commonwealth because it covers 104 square miles and 87,000 people.

“Most fire companies that deal with a community that size have professional fire companies,” he said.

To explain why the current fire protection system is not working, Bair cited the fact that Alpha is finding it difficult to recruit new members. There are 109 members and the company needs 125 to operate most efficiently. The company spends some $37,000 on its marketing efforts for new members.

“If you look at it statistically, we need 12 to 17 people for a house fire, though more is better. And that number is higher if we have to truck water to the site,” Bair explained. “Only 22 percent of our coverage area is served by fire hydrants.”

Volunteerism appears to be dropping nationally and in Pennsylvania, Bair said.

“It seems to be a significant shift in society. At one time, a fire company was the hub of a community. Plus, as a society, we are incredibly mobile. There is more to do, more places to go and more families that need two incomes to get by. I have come to the conclusion that we are losing people to part time employment,” he said.

Bair said that Alpha Fire Company has a cap of 40 student volunteers but has never gone past 35.

The facts about the response to a house or property fire are stark.

“Our basic concept of operations is to arrive at a fire before that fire meets a flashover point. Flash point is a free-burning stage where things are being consumed at a rapid rate. The goal is to respond quickly and overwhelm to fire before that flashover,” he stated.

Bair said that a flash used to occur about 11 minutes into a fire. Today, that can occur in three minutes or less. He attributes that fact to a number of things: modern architecture, larger open rooms and the many synthetic materials found in homes.

“Heat is released at rates that are much greater,” he said.

A typical response time for Alpha Fire Company — and for most of the other volunteer companies in the county — is 10 firefighters arriving in 10 minutes or less.

“That’s the standard of performance set by the National Fire Protection Association. And we do pretty well with that standard,” he said.

Of course if a house fire flashes in three minutes, the home will be lost.

Bair urges homeowners to help the firefighters deliver a good outcome.

“First, take fire safety and protection seriously. Take the time to be fire safe. 44 percent of all house fires are cooking related. So when you’re cooking, don’t run errands. If you have a fire, don’t delay. There is no room for error. You will be shocked at how quickly smoke and fire get bad and thick. It’s nothing like what is seen on television,” he said.

As a firefighting professional, Bair is urging the region to open a genuine and sincere dialogue about the fire fighting crisis we face.

“We need to discuss what works. If we are not going to volunteer, and if we don’t want to pay additional taxes for equipment or professional fire fighters, then what’s the plan? The current model is failing. There’s no question about that,” he said.

Bair suggests that adding water sprinkler systems to housing codes may be the best answer.

“And if you have a better idea than sprinklers, I’d like to hear it. Do you have the right to let your house burn down? Not if it hurts my house and raises everyone’s insurance rates. I have found that people see things differently when their house is on fire,” he said.

Harry is a correspondent for the Gazette.
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