HARRISBURG – Lawmakers were joined by more than a dozen firefighters and other first responders outside the state Capitol on Monday to tout 23 bills the state House is poised to pass in the coming days to help volunteer fire departments recruit and retain members.
The bills are designed to finally slow four-decades of declining volunteer numbers, lawmakers said.
“We are acting now to avert a crisis in the delivery of volunteer fire and EMS services in Pennsylvania,” said state Rep. Stephen Barrar, R-Delaware County. “This legislation would address the well-being of our emergency personnel and provide incentives to help recruit and retain volunteer and career first responders.”
Barrar is the Republican chairman of the House veterans affairs and emergency preparedness committee.
Bill McClincy, director of Meadville-based Emergency Medical Management Cooperative West, said measures to attract and retain firefighters, both volunteer and professional, and EMS responders are badly needed. The agency, abbreviated as EMMCO West, oversees emergency medical services for Clarion, Crawford, Erie, Forest, Mercer, Venango and Warren counties.
During the five-year span from 2013 through 2017, 169 EMS responders have left the profession. McClincy said EMMCO West will complete another manpower study by early 2020, and he expects the numbers to be just as grim.
“This is a public safety crisis that our communities are confronting right now,” he said. “We have dwindling numbers of volunteers and dwindling numbers of professionals. Conversely, on the other side, we have surging demand for those services.”
McClincy said young people – people between 20 and 35 – are signing up as first responders. But as they transition into careers and marriage, they drop out of the field and opting not to renew their certifications.
The measures tackle the problem on a number of fronts and largely follow the recommendations proposed by a commission formed in 2017 to study the challenges contributing to the drop in the number of volunteers serving in fire companies.
Of Pennsylvania’s 2,462 fire companies, more than 90 percent are staffed by volunteers. In the 1970s, there were about 300,000 volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania, but today, there are fewer than 38,000. Barrar warned that if this trend continues, emergency calls could go unanswered.
Among the measures are a proposal to offer tuition assistance to help volunteer firefighters afford college or other post-secondary education, as well as legislation to offer volunteer firefighters loan forgiveness on college debt.
The tuition assistance would be modeled after similar legislation signed into law earlier this year to offer grants for those who serve in the Pennsylvania National Guard, said state Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence County, the Democratic chairman of the veterans affairs and emergency preparedness committee. Under Act 32, signed by Gov. Tom Wolf in July, it provides college grants equal to no more than the cost of tuition at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education for those serving in the National Guard.
Sainato is the prime sponsor of the loan forgiveness legislation. Under that plan, volunteer firefighters would be eligible to get up to $16,000 in loan forgiveness after four years of service as first responders.
Sainato said the proposals are critical to encourage people to volunteer or continue volunteering in the state’s fire companies.
“Nothing is free,” he said. “These people earn it.”
The tuition assistance and loan forgiveness measures are both teed up for final House votes as soon as Wednesday.
Barrar said the commission that came up with the recommendations was championed by former state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny County, and he “absolutely” expects the Senate to take up the measures after they pass out of the House.
“Many of these bills are just common sense,” he said.
Barrar authored legislation that would allow emergency responders, including police officers and firefighters, to get workers compensation coverage for post-traumatic stress caused by the trauma of their service.
McClincy said he supports the slate of bills under consideration.
“This is a very well-thought-out process,” he said. “Our legislators are doing a very good job to let people know that this is an issue confronting public safety.”
ERIC POOLE of The Herald contributed to this story.