‘We can’t sit on our hands anymore’: Cash-strapped volunteer fire depts. ask lawmakers for help

The House Republican Policy Committee traveled to Lehigh County for a hearing on Tuesday

By: - May 30, 2023 3:59 pm

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Every year, Emerald Star Hose Fire Company #1 in Slatington, Lehigh County has to find about $148,000 of funding in order to break even on its financial affairs, according to Chief Tito Burgos. And every year, it gets more difficult to find those funds. And Emerald Star Hose isn’t alone. Costs are only rising. 

The only challenge that rivals finding funds is finding volunteers. 

Burgos joined Weisenberg Volunteer Department Deputy Chief Brian Carl, also from Lehigh County, and professional firefighter JT Klein from Hazelton, in an appearance before the House Republican Policy Committee on Tuesday.

Lawmakers held the session at Emerald Star Hose Fire Company. 

“I don’t want to turn everyone into panic mode, but we can’t sit on our hands anymore,” Carl said. 

Financially, most fire departments receive some level of funding from their municipalities. Weisenberg charges a tax of .44 mills specifically for the department, which brings in about $300,000 a year. 

It seems like a lot of money until other costs are considered — the fire department just purchased an $800,000 tanker to replace an outdated one and it costs between $150,000 and $200,000 to run the department each year without replacing any equipment, according to Carl. 

“Essentially we run small businesses, raising revenue, bookkeeping, public safety and maintaining buildings,” Carl said. “Then there’s the firefighting side and managing volunteers.” 

Burgos’s department receives about $52,000 in total funding, including state grants. It costs about $200,000 to run the department without buying new equipment. The department runs hoagie sales and other fundraisers, but it’s rarely enough. 

Then there’s the issue of volunteers. 

Most rural fire departments in Pennsylvania are fully staffed by volunteers, from chiefs to junior firefighters. Companies across the commonwealth are bleeding manpower. 

According to Rep. Jim Rigby R-Cambria, a former volunteer firefighter, in the 1970s there were 300,000 volunteers in Pennsylvania. Now, that number is down to 36,000. 

There are multiple reasons for the lack of volunteers, one of which is a more stringent and time-consuming certification process 

“We need to simplify the training, while calls are more complex, training needs to be easier to access,” Carl said. “I don’t want to send them across the county to go to a class for three months.” 

Carl also suggested other initiatives for volunteers, such as tuition assistance, retirement plans and tax incentives for employers that allow employees to respond to fire calls.

Across the nation, states are taking action on volunteer emergency service initiatives. 

In New York, legislators passed a law allowing municipalities to enact property tax breaks of up to 10% for volunteer firefighters. Wyoming created a $9 million volunteer firefighter pension fund, Stateline reported in April. 

Paying full-time staff at fire companies is simply not feasible, especially with the lack of funding already supplied to fire departments, Carl added. 

“I hope the governor and my fellow legislators hear this: The commonwealth is simply going to have to step up. It’s simply unsustainable,” Rep. Mark Gillen, R-Berks, said. “There’s going to be a cost involved, and there’s going to be a vote involved. We cannot vote to do nothing. That’s no longer an option.” 

As part of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposed 2023-24 budget plan, $36 million would be invested into new equipment and training for firefighters and EMS personnel. The spending plan has bipartisan support, but is still undergoing negotiations. 

Another issue that Burgos, whose company hosted the panel, ran into is trying to find grants. 

“You can’t go to one place to find grants,” Burgos said. “Grant writers charge per-grant, and the ratio of successes is not balanced.” 

Burgos proposed a state website to promote visible and accessible grants, as well as statewide education to find volunteers. For him, finding money is a problem that’s past due on resolution. 

Merging small fire companies is a possibility, but it would mean more hours spent away from the line of duty for chiefs. It’s a luxury few can afford, but Carl said “the time’s pretty ripe” to help struggling departments work together. 

“Leadership wants to talk, but you gotta make it a little easier, maybe tie grant funding towards that,” Carl said. ‘There’s lots of negotiating involved and someone needs to do all that work.”

Typically in business mergers, a lawyer or arbitrator is called in, but volunteer companies don’t have the funds for that. According to Carl, at some point the commonwealth has to step in. 

Mental health in firefighters and EMTs is another crisis that the Republican Policy Committee heard on Tuesday. 

Don DeReamus, legislative chair of Suburban EMS, a nonprofit EMS service from Lehigh Valley, and a paramedic, spoke to the panel on declining mental health rates in emergency services communities. 

Suicides in emergency services have surpassed line of duty deaths, DeReamus said. He suggested providing workman’s compensation for PTSD as well as resources to help emergency service providers with mental health. 

Rep. Ryan Mackenzie R-Lehigh, said he hopes to put together a “package of legislation” to address concerns from emergency services and fire departments across Pennsylvania. 

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