New hires bring four to firefighting team

Contrary to stereotype, Chris DeStefano didn’t want to grow up to be a firefighter when he was a child.

It was during high school, when that supposedly commonplace notion had burned out for most kids, that it caught fire with DeStefano.

He was at the fire station in Roaring Spring, where his dad was working on a communication bus, when he saw one of the station trucks, sat inside it and realized that it represented what he wanted to do with his life.

On Tuesday, DeStefano was one of four new Altoona firefighters – all former volunteers in other municipalities – sworn in at City Council chambers.

DeStefano has always liked to help people, and being a professional firefighter will enable him to make a career of it, said Chris’ father, Carl, a volunteer firefighter himself who recalled his son helping remodel a friend’s house in Juniata Gap – doing carpentry, plumbing and electrical work.

The younger DeStefano was nervous “of course,” Tuesday, but his previous interaction with city firefighters – as with the volunteers at his old company, Logan Township United – has showed him the city department is professional, friendly and welcoming, in contrast to the old idea that it was a good old boys’ club, he said.

The volunteer experience is no accident – the city’s fire civil service board stipulated that candidates should be level 1 certified, said Fire Chief Tim Hileman.

That will save the city a total of about $36,000 in fire academy training costs, Hileman said.

That doesn’t mean the new hires are full-fledged yet, though, because they are to begin a six-month training period to validate the certifications, according to Hileman.

They can’t drive, and they can’t “freelance,” he said.

If they enter a burning building, they’ll be working alongside a captain or training officer, he said.

Being a city firefighter nowadays involves “a ton” of responsibilities, including emergency medical technician work at vehicle crashes, hazardous materials cleanup, trench rescue, high- and low-angle rescue and more, Hileman said.

“It’s no longer just grabbing a hose and putting the wet stuff on the red stuff,” he told the new firefighters’ family members and representatives of City Council at the swearing-in.

The hirings of DeStefano; Jonathan Ravel of Blandon, Berks County; Brandon Beers of Roaring Spring; and Shawn Daughenbaugh of Martinsburg will bring the department roster beyond the 62 mandated by the city’s Act 47 distress recovery plan, an expansion permitted by the city’s Act 47 coordinator team because a $350,000 Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response grant is paying for three of the positions for two years.

Retirements during that time will almost certainly drop the roster back to the mandated 62, which makes the jobs of the three firefighters hired with grant money – DeStefano, Beers and Daughenbaugh – “pretty secure,” Hileman said.

There will be no operational distinction between the grant-funded positions and the other post, Hileman said.

The new firefighters’ starting pay will be $30,000 a year.

For DeStefano, the swearing-in itself helped “reconfirm that this is what I want to do with my life.”

As with police officers, the oath to serve with fidelity is a signal of the high seriousness of the calling, the 24/7, 365-days-a-year responsibility and the potential for losing one’s life, Hileman said.

It also signals that when the alarm goes off, there’s no option not to respond, said Assistant Chief Steve Michelone.

“[The swearing in] sets the tone,” Hileman said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.