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OPWDD fire safety reps aid community following storms

By KATE MOSTACCIO

With backgrounds in fire service and code enforcement, fire safety representatives at the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) spend much of their time training fellow OPWDD staff on fire prevention and safety and making sure residence facilities are up to code.

“On a normal day, we can do a lot of different things,” said Mark Villa, a fire safety representative at Sunmount DDSO for the last three years. “We’re big on educating OPWDD staff on fire safety related concerns. A lot of our job is training staff for their fire safety refresher every year.”

These PEF members also research and do building code reviews for their agency.

“If we receive a citation from the Office of Fire Prevention and Control or the Division of Quality Improvement, we come up with solutions to fix the problems,” Villa said. Fire safety reps think outside the box, offering alternative ways to address code issues than just financial fixes.

They also oversee construction projects at OPWDD homes.

But, that’s not all they do. After high winds and flooding this Halloween, OPWDD fire safety representatives jumped to the aid of their local community.

“We’re part of Emergency Services Function 6 at the state Emergency Operations Center level,” Villa explained. ESF Function 6 encompasses supporting and facilitating the coordination of mass care, sheltering, emergency assistance, housing, and human services throughout the state during response and short term recovery of an incident. “The governor activated the EOC in response to that storm and we were deployed to Hamilton County. We assisted with collecting data and information from citizens about damages they suffered and compiled it to try to get to the FEMA threshold.”

In order for FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to come in with funding, monetary damages have to reach a certain threshold, Villa said.

This was the first time Villa has been deployed to assist the community.

“Most of the time we are going out and assisting our own houses,” Villa said. “In the Sunmount area, we have 43 community houses. Other areas have more than 200 homes.”

Interacting with the public was a new experience. An OPWDD day program facility in the town of Speculator became a temporary disaster assistance center. “A lot of people didn’t know why we were there,” Villa said. “A lot of people thought we were there to hand out FEMA money. We had to do a lot of educating for the public. The people were pretty receptive to it.”

Coming from 10 years in the volunteer fire service, spanning multiple departments, Villa is no stranger to adapting to a situation.

“In the fire service, we adapt to a lot of different things,” he said. “We consoled people and offered assistance where we could. We gave out contact information for the Department of Social Services and local county agencies. They were happy about that.”

OPWDD fire safety staff also worked closely with the municipalities. “It was good working with the actual municipalities to make sure they were on the same page and knew we were there to gather as much information as we could,” Villa said.

Getting out and helping the public also offered insight into what services OPWDD offers.

“Before I started with OPWDD, I didn’t really know about the agency,” Villa said. “Fire safety is a passion and it’s important to the agency that we make sure our houses are safe for our people that live in them.”

Villa said fire safety representatives strive to make OPWDD facilities as safe as possible — by preventing incidents before they happen.

“We do more than just telling people, ‘You can’t do that or have that’,” Villa said. “We’re there to educate them and help them understand why they can’t do certain things.”

Related story: PEF members from multiple agencies assist with Halloween storm response


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