Campus Life

Penn State employees, students are big part of local fire company

University Park, Pa. -- When the Alpha Fire Company answers a call -- and it responded to more than 900 last year -- chances are that University employees will be involved.

In fact, approximately 40 percent of the all-volunteer fire company's members are Penn State employees and students. Included are the current chief and assistant chief. The fire company president is an associate dean and a faculty member in the College of Engineering.

"The excellent relationship between the University and the fire company is an important part of the Alphas' success," Walter Wise, fire administrator for the Centre Region Council of Governments (COG), said. "If you took away the contribution by the University and its employees, the Alpha Fire Company would have a serious problem.

"Volunteer fire service, especially on a level such as the Alpha Fire Company, takes a special calling. It is very demanding in terms of the time requirements. Penn State employees and students have been more than willing to make the necessary commitment."

The Alpha Fire Company's primary response area is State College Borough, Patton and Ferguson townships, and most of College Township, including the University Park campus. Because it is a regional fire company, its $1 million annual operating and capital budgets are funded through COG with contributions from the University and participating municipalities and the Pennsylvania Firemen's Relief Fund.

The Alphas respond from three stations: the Central Station in State College, where there are two aerial trucks, three engines, a rescue truck and a tanker; the Patton Township Station, with one engine and a tanker, and the College Township Building, where there is one engine.

According to Wise, the Alphas have had a long relationship with the University. The first fire company in the region was a student fire company established in 1862. The Alpha Fire Company began operations in 1899 and merged with the University fire company in 1924.

Penn State employees have held major leadership roles throughout the fire company's history. The late Ron Ross, a 50-year member, served as fire department chief from 1972 to 1978. The current chief is Stanley L. Clouser, general construction and repair mechanic in the Applied Research Laboratory. More than 10 employees in the Office of Physical Plant are members, including James Brown, an equipment operator, who currently is assistant chief, and Steven Triebold, fire protection engineer in Environmental Health and Safety, who served as chief from 1992 to 1997 and now is a truck captain.

Keith Yocum, University Police, currently is safety officer, and Michael Klein, retired director of Risk Management, is assistant safety officer and former president and safety officer. The list goes on.

The Alpha Fire Company currently has approximately 95 members, all of whom are active fire fighters or fire police. There are no social members. Requirements include responding to a certain number of alarms; attending an appropriate number of business meetings; and accumulating at least 20 hours of training annually. Most members complete much more training. Each carries a pager and the typical member responds to 20 to 25 percent of the calls.

"Training requirements have escalated over the years because there are more state mandates resulting in a need for more extensive training," said Robert N. Pangborn, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Engineering. "The Alphas have been proactive in requiring current types of training, which is partly driven by the evolution of different kinds of responses. These include new automatic alarms in commercial and residential buildings, carbon monoxide alarms and an increase in calls to traffic accidents."

The company has a live-in program, now in its third year, in which four members live in the Central Station and four live in the Patton Township Station. At both stations, there are additional rooms for bunk-ins -- members who rotate nights in the bunkroom.

"The Penn State volunteers provide important firefighting and rescue service to the region and the University," Pangborn added. "In exchange, the fire company receives skills associated with University personnel that benefit the fire company and the fire service. We have members with a variety of skills consistent with a University that are advantageous to any fire company.

"And our student members provide important service for two to five years while they are enrolled at the University. Most, when they graduate, move on to other communities and many continue in the fire service. In any given year, one or two members apply for career fire fighter positions in communities with full-time departments."

Michael Klein's son, Chris, for example, is continuing his family's tradition of volunteer fire service as a lieutenant with the Manassas Fire Company in Manassas, Va.

"Many of our student members are very active in the fire company," Klein said. "They are well trained and well disciplined. They use this experience as a springboard to work or become volunteers for fire companies or ambulance services or full-time career fire fighters."

Pangborn said the fire company has developed mechanisms to recruit and maintain student and other members that benefit both the individuals and the operation of the company. These include providing quiet study and work spaces, computers and Internet connections on which to do homework assignments, and a fitness facility.

"This ensures that company members will often be in the station and available to immediately respond to alarms," he said.

Penn State provided ground to the Alphas for a training facility on Big Hollow Road from the early 1970s until 1997 when the training site was retired. A new, county-operated facility, supported by the local municipalities and the University, is being developed on ground near the State Correctional Institution at Rockview.

Triebold, who represents Penn State on the countywide planning committee, said the University is very supportive of volunteer fire and emergency services.

"First of all, the University, through a Human Resources policy, provides the ability for employees who are Alpha members to respond to fire calls. In addition to providing financial support, the University makes its buildings available to the fire company for training purposes."

Pangborn said most members are involved in the Alpha Fire Company because of the opportunity to serve the community.

"Fellowship in the fire accompany also is very important," he added. "Personally, I like the spontaneity of this type of volunteer service. Because my life as a dean is so scheduled with meetings and appointments, I sought volunteer service that has a more spontaneous element to it. Members respond when an alarm sounds. And there are special skills involved."

Wise agreed that community service is the key to the Alphas' dedication and commitment.

"At the same time," he said, "there is a lot of satisfaction in helping people in desperate need. Being an Alpha involves wearing a pager that goes off twice a day on the average. Every page is a call for service in an emergency situation. There is some excitement and it often is stressful. But there is always the satisfaction of doing a good job."

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Last Updated March 19, 2009