Commentary

Pa.’s volunteer fire departments are in crisis. How Pa. lawmakers are moving to help | Mark O’Keefe

May 6, 2021 6:30 am

Firetrucks on the streets of Harrisburg, Pa. (Flickr Commons).

Imagine that your house is on fire, but there are no firefighters available to put it out?

Or imagine that volunteer fire departments across the state go out of business and your property taxes soar out of control as municipal officials must pay firefighters?

Unfortunately, both of those scenarios are playing out in Pennsylvania, especially in rural areas that rely solely on volunteer firefighters.

Jay Delaney, the president of the Pennsylvania Fire Chiefs Association, testified last week before the state Senate’s Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee about the numerous problems facing volunteer fire departments, chief among them a lack of firefighters.

Delaney noted that in 1970, there were about 300,000 volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania. He said that number dropped to 150,000 by 1985 and plummeted to 38,000 today.

He said many volunteer fire departments are operating in “crisis mode,” which has only been made worse by the pandemic.

The biggest reason for the decline in numbers is our transient society. In years past, families operated volunteer fire departments. So chances were pretty good that if your dad was a fireman, you’d follow in his footsteps.

However, now many younger people move out of their hometowns for good-paying jobs and never return.

In addition, firefighting training is more complex and time-consuming than in years past. It’s a huge commitment that many young people are unwilling or unable to take on.

Lawmakers thought they had taken significant steps to solve these problems by passing legislation last fall, which created a state fire commission, and expanded the office of the state fire commissioner.

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However, some Republican senators on the committee, including Chairman Pat Stefano, R-Fayette, were concerned that the Wolf administration was acting too slowly in carrying out the changes.

Testifying before the same legislative committee as Delaney, Fire Commissioner Bruce Trego said the pandemic had hampered his department in making the necessary changes.

However, he said things are moving along. Trego said his office distributed about 90 percent of the $50 million in COVID-19 relief funds for fire departments. Trego also noted that his office is creating a Fire Safety Advisory Board with its first meeting expected in either May or June.

Trego added that his office doesn’t have the funding to carry out all the changes and urged the Legislature to set up funding mechanisms for the programs.

Nathan Silcox, executive director of the Senate Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee, said GOP senators were glad to see Trego layout some timelines for action. However, he maintained that the Wolf administration is “way behind the eight-ball” in carrying the many changes needed, especially in terms of recruitment and retention of firefighters.

“We need the fire commissioner to show leadership and support the changes we made, but we’re just not seeing it,” Silcox said.

He pointed out that departments can now make many changes in recruiting firefighters, including the possibility of getting municipal officials to exempt firefighters from paying property taxes, providing free tuition for firefighters at community colleges, and paying longevity bonuses to firefighters.

“There are many things departments could be doing, but the changes aren’t being implemented,” said Silcox. “The fire commissioner has to be out there letting local officials know what’s available and what can be done. We have to make this as easy as possible for local officials.”

Silcox said if Trego’s office is having funding problems, he should seek help first from the Wolf administration, which signed off on the changes.

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Meanwhile, legislation is moving along in the state Legislature, which would help volunteer fire departments stay afloat financially. Many departments had their fundraising efforts cut drastically due to COVID-19 mitigation efforts, which forced the department to cancel in-person fundraising events, including bingos, raffles, and drawings.

Some tried to raise funds online but found out such efforts were illegal. So, state Rep. Ryan Warner, R-Fayette, introduced legislation to allow groups with small games of chance licenses to conduct raffles and drawings online, using mobile payment services such as PayPal and Venmo but not credit cards for payment. The bill also increased individual prize limits to $4,000 and weekly prize limits to $50,000.

The House passed the by a 193-8 margin. And the Senate Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee recently passed the bill by a 13-0 vote. Warner said he’s hoping the full Senate will vote on the bill sometime before lawmakers adjourn at the end of June.

Some oppose the bill in the state’s casino industry, and the state’s Department of Revenue has come out against the legislation because of fears it might hurt the state’s lottery games.

Warner downplayed those concerns and said the issue is “cut and dried” with him.

“We are blessed with dedicated first responders who stand ready, willing, and able to drop whatever they are doing and respond to help a neighbor in need. Whether it’s storms and flooding, fires, traffic accidents, or other emergencies, we know we can count on our first responders to be there for us.

“Now, we need to be there for them and make sure they know how much we support and appreciate their commitment to us and our communities,” he added.

Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. 

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