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Take 10 With Fire Commissioner Tim Solobay

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July 23, 2015 | PENNSYLVANIA TIM SOLOBAY, Correspondent

Tim Solobay, who served this area in the Pennsylvania Legislature for 16 years, was named State Fire Commissioner earlier this year by Governor Tom Wolf. Mr. Solobay comes to the job with considerable background as a current member and former Fire Chief of Canonsburg’s Volunteer Fire Department. Here are 10 questions for Fire Commissioner Solobay:

1. Tell us a little about the duties of the State Fire Commissioner.
A. The commission office has been in existence since 1976 under Gov. Milton Shapp with several roles and separations of roles since then. I am the 5th Commissioner since its existence. Basically, it gives the commissioner the responsibility of addressing the training, operational and informational needs of the commonwealth’s fire services. We develop and operate the state fire academy and set the standards of training and certification for all training across the commonwealth. We also oversee the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program, $30 million Fire Department and Volunteer Ambulance Grant Program and the Fire Safety Education Programs. We are also responsible for the Pa. Fire Information System (PennFIRS) which all companies use to send fire incidents and calls to a central location for calculation of emergencies across the state. We also aid and assist companies that may have had a Line of Duty Death (LODD) and conduct a firefighters memorial flag program.
2. In the short time you’ve been on the job, have you formulated an agenda of what you’d like to accomplish?
A. Over the 16 years I was in the Pennsylvania Legislature and by virtue of my committee assignment, I have worked that entire time with the State Fire Commissioner’s office. We want to build on positives that we helped accomplish during those years but also want to strive for improving the delivery system and also help in the biggest issues - retention and recruitment of volunteers and developing ways municipal governments can assist fire departments in continuing their mission. At the end of the day, it is the local government’s responsibility to provide emergency services to its residents. The state and federal government co-ordinate and standardize delivery, but the financial responsibility is in the hands of local government.


“At the end of the day, it is the local government’s responsibility to provide emergency services to its residents.”

3. What’s the most critical need?
A. Retention, recruitment and funding.
4. Your background as a fireman and fire chief, as well as your duties at area hospitals will obviously come in handy. Do you think your 16 years as a legislator will help accomplish your goals?
A. As a former legislator, I have a heads up on how the legislative process works and also know a lot of players in both the Senate and House when I need to bring legislation to them. Being an emergency responder will definitely be an advantage because we have walked the walk for almost 40 years.
5. Will any of your proposals necessitate dealing with the state legislature?
A. Most of the things my office needs to do requires legislative action to become law.
6. What’s the current ratio of career to volunteer firemen in the state…and is it necessary to deal with the two groups separately or collectively?
A. About 90% of the commonwealth land area is protected by volunteers, but a majority of the major population bases are covered by career or combination companies that have volunteers supplemented with some career folks. Fire emergencies and other disasters don’t differentiate between volunteers or career fire fighters. Same with training needs. There are some differences between the two but there are also a lot of common factors.


“Fire emergencies and other disasters don’t differentiate between volunteers or career fire fighters.”

7. Maintaining the number of volunteer firemen in Pennsylvania has evidently reached the critical stage. How can your office positively impact recruiting more volunteers?
A. There are several statewide organizations that have developed recruitment programs that are working. Our office has partnered in the past and continues to explore what helps a particular area to get more volunteers. Folks are willing to learn and train to be a firefighter and to answer calls. but it’s the fundraising that hurts departments. Folks didn’t sign up to spend 90% of their time raising money and 10% of the time training and fighting fires.
8. The State Fire Commissioner position was created in 1976. To your knowledge, was the new position prompted by a single incident or a general need for the state to oversee all of the individual fire departments?
A. I believe a need for standardized training and coordinating activities was one factor. Firefighter safety and keeping a standard of delivery was another factor. Also, with loan and grant programs, there was a need for a central office.


“Folks didn’t sign up to spend 90% of their time raising money and 10% of the time training and fighting fires.”

9. Is your department large enough so that you’ll be able to visit fire departments individually, or do fire departments generally gather in Harrisburg to discuss issues?
A. We will get the opportunity to travel around the entire commonwealth and visit as many departments or multiple departments as possible. Hearing issues firsthand and in their own setting is usually the best way to learn what’s most important. Often, some folks don’t feel comfortable talking in large, regional groups. The total office and academy full-time staff is around 25, but we also have almost 2,000 part-time instructors that do local-level teaching and must be certified and under control of the office.
10. You were a large part of maintaining and improving the Canonsburg Volunteer Fire Department over the years (and in it being recognized multiple times). Would you consider it a model volunteer department for the state?
A. I am very proud of the Canonsburg VFD, its heritage and its present operation. I am also very thankful to our local elected officials that recognize not only what we do as a department but see the trends that are going on statewide and nationally and help us tremendously with necessary resources so that we only need to train and respond to calls. We do still have some issues with manpower, but we continue to call on and ask for members.
BONUS Canonsburg was recently named the second-most popular place in Pennsylvania to retire. As a long-time Canonsburg resident, what makes the borough so attractive to retired folks?
A. The residents feel safe, and I think we play a role there. Also, Canonsburg has reasonable housing and amenities that older folks look for in a home setting. We are close to a world-class city such as Pittsburgh and all it has to offer but still have that hometown feeling.

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TIM SOLOBAYCorrespondent

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