HARRISBURG — Volunteer fire departments should have more say in how they spend state aid, especially when they have added paid first responders to complement the efforts of volunteers, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Thursday.
Current state law tightly restricts how volunteer firefighters’ relief associations (VFRA) may spend the state aid they receive.
“Some relief associations have met their operational funding needs and have accumulated significant reserves that they may be unable to spend because of the restrictions contained in state law,” DePasquale said. “At the same time, relief associations statewide are having difficulty recruiting new volunteers and struggling to provide support to their affiliated fire departments.”
DePasquale said the situation is even more complicated where fire departments rely on a combined staff of paid and volunteer firefighters. Relief associations are legally separate from the fire departments they support and state aid provided under Act 118 of 2010 is intended to solely benefit volunteer firefighters.
“Because of the way the current law is written, relief associations lack the flexibility to fully use their allotment of state funding to help other volunteer firefighters protect our communities,” he said.
DePasquale said that recent audits have identified almost 60 fire associations which have each amassed more than $1 million because the state restrictions are barring them from spending the money on the things they need.
“If you ask any one of these associations how they could use this money to help recruit, equip and protect volunteer firefighters, they’d give you a list a mile long. But, then they would tell you they are not allowed because the law is so narrow that it’s hurting firefighters. Clearly, the law must change,” DePasquale said.
Among the 59 relief associations with more than $1 million in their accounts is Joint Hermitage/Patagonia Volunteer Fire Relief Association in Mercer County. That association had $1.95 million in its account when it was audited. The West Chester Volunteer Fire Relief Association, in Chester County, had $11.7 million in its account when it was audited, and the Pittston Volunteer Fire Relief Association had $10.5 million in its account when it was audited, according to information provided by the auditor general.
The funding comes from a 2 percent tax collected on fire insurance premiums paid by residents to out-of-state insurance companies.
DePasquale said that one of the problems is that the aid is targeted toward equipment and training for volunteers. If departments add paid personnel, the state aid can’t be used for the portion of the department that is being paid to respond.
This is becoming more of an issue as fire departments struggle to find enough volunteers to respond when needed, he said.
Harrisburg Fire Chief Brian Enterline said it’s not the only shortcoming. For instance, the list of approved equipment doesn’t cover the purchase of drones, he said.
The list of approved equipment maintained by the Department of Community and Economic Development shows a handful of other items that fire departments can purchase with the state aid: including night vision equipment, bomb-sniffing dogs and dress uniforms.
Enterline said that the state fire commissioner or a panel of fire chiefs should be tasked with maintaining the list of approved equipment.