“If you’re not from our community, you have no idea what some parents are up against, and school is like a saving grace for these kids," said an assistant principal.By Meghan Schiller

MCKEESPORT, Pa. (KDKA) – McKeesport firefighters aren’t just fighting fires and responding to car crashes, they’re picking up school students stranded by the bus driver shortage.

Only on KDKA, Meghan Schiller talks with the firefighter who answered the call and now spearheads an initiative to ease the stress on parents, students, and teachers.

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“We all live here, our kids go to school here, a lot of us grew up here, you know a lot of us will probably never leave here unless they throw us out,” said McKeesport firefighter Kevin Kovach.

Forget walking, biking or public transit. There’s a new way for kids to get to school in McKeesport.

As cities across the nation try to solve the bus driver shortage, firefighters in McKeesport came up with an idea. It doesn’t involve the typical transportation, but it’s a fire someone needs to put out.

Firefighters know how to drop everything and rush off to help.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

“That’s kind of what we’re trying to do here, put the fire out and figure out what happened later. And in the meantime, the kids are at school,” Kovach said.

Kovach found out about the bus driver shortage on Facebook.

“Without knowing official numbers and just hearing from people, it sounds to me like it could be in the range from like 20 to 50,” Kovach said.

Dozens of local kids were stranded either at home or after the final bell. Some of the little ones already missed a full week’s worth of teaching.

“When they miss, they feel left out, they know they missed something, and when they come back, they don’t know what happened the day before, they’re trying to make up work,” Francis McClure Elementary School Assistant Principal Lisa Miracle-Volpe said.

“I think what a lot of people don’t understand is they don’t just go to school. They get fed breakfast, lunch and a lot of times dinner, and a lot of these kids — that’s what they depend on to eat,” Kovach said.

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That’s why Kovach started picking up kids in his personal vehicle early in the morning and in between calls in the afternoon. The schools call the fire station with the updated list of kids each morning and thankful parents give permission.

“We can’t stand for that, so we have to figure a way to get them in, because it’s the same kids every time – the poorest kids, the neediest kids are the ones that are getting missed and we just weren’t going to let that happen,” Kovach said.

It’s a huge relief for Miracle-Volpe.

“If you’re not from our community, you have no idea what some parents are up against, and school is like a saving grace for these kids,” she said.

Chief Jeffrey Tomovcsik says it just makes sense.

“I wasn’t surprised. Not at all,” he said.

His firefighters already earned their child clearances, the school district is on board and it’s only just beginning.

“You might not have the fire truck showing up, but you still have a McKeesport firefighter showing up and they’re there to help so there hasn’t been any negative feedback whatsoever,” Tomovcsik said.

Mayor Michael Cherpko told KDKA that he supports the mission.

“In following this busing situation, I was not surprised to hear that our firemen stepped up to meet the community’s needs,” Mayor Cherepko said.

“We are very blessed here in the city of McKeesport to have a department made up of first-class individuals who not only do an incredible job in the fire service itself but who go above and beyond their duties to help McKeesport families at a time like this,” he added.

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The firefighters hope this story will reach more parents in McKeesport who feel helpless when the phone rings early in the morning with a robocall saying there’s no available school bus. They also hope to inspire other people in the community to also step up and help.

Meghan Schiller