Pa. firefighters rally at state Capitol for online fundraisers

Volunteer fire companies were forced to halt their online raffles after state officials said they were illegal


Steve Marroni
pennlive.com

HARRISBURG, Pa. — It’s hard enough to be a volunteer firefighter. They rush into burning buildings. They get up in the middle of the night to battle blazes. They save lives.

“I personally don’t think you should be selling hoagies in the rain, in the freezing cold, on the weekend,” Pennsylvania state Rep. Ryan Warner, R- Fayette County, told a group of firefighters assembled at the state Capitol Monday morning.

Pennsylvania firefighters rallied at the state Capitol on Monday to call for legislation that would allow them to continue their online fundraisers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pennsylvania firefighters rallied at the state Capitol on Monday to call for legislation that would allow them to continue their online fundraisers during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo/Steve Marroni, PennLive.com)

He’s hoping his recently introduced legislation will do just that – take some of the burden of fundraising off of firefighters.

Fundraisers are what pay the bills for Pennsylvania’s volunteer fire companies, but the coronavirus pandemic brought these efforts to a halt with restrictions on in-person gatherings.

At first, some fire companies were holding online raffles, and that was working great, until they were contacted by the state police and their county treasurers’ offices, saying under their small-games-of-chance licenses, they were not permitted to accept credit or debit card payments. That meant cash payments for raffles and pull-tab tickets, which was next to impossible with the elimination of in-person events.

But legislation introduced Jan. 27 by Warner may lend a helping hand.

House Bill 290, which passed the House by a 193-8 vote, attempts to address some of these issues for fire companies and the state’s non-profits.

Now before the Senate for consideration, the bill would authorize holders of small games of chance licenses to conduct online raffles and drawings, permitting the use of a mobile payment service, such as PayPal or Venmo, for payment but not credit or debit cards. It also raises prize limits to $4,000 for a single game with a weekly prize limit for the organization of $50,000.

If passed, these changes would expire at the end of the COVID-19 disaster emergency or May 1, 2022, whichever is later.

Marcus Riddell of the Tower City Fire Company organized the rally today. Though fewer than 20 people showed up, he’s hoping their voices will be heard inside the halls of the Capitol.

“We as firefighters and non-profits adapted and overcame the situation,” he said. “House Bill 290 will allow us to start our online raffles legally again. Now we’re just having a rally to let the Senate know that we’re here, we need this, we need the money.”

He said 83 percent of Pennsylvania’s fire companies are volunteer and rely on fundraisers and will be helped by this legislation.

While he’s happy Warner’s bill passed the House, he’s hoping some of the more restrictive amendments that were tacked on can be stripped away in the Senate.

The big one is the requirement for online age and Pennsylvania-residency verification system, he said. He said he’s fine with verifying age and residency, but noted the restriction was placed on the bill due to opposition from the casino industry, which has the same verification standards. But Riddell argues small fire companies and other non-profits do not have the same resources as casinos, making the cost of verifying age and residency online prohibitive.

“We’ve been doing raffles and everything through small games of chance since 1988, and we were trusted to verify age and residency when we did it in person,” Riddell said. He’s asking for the same trust in online raffles. “We don’t have the money and resources to have a website and an IT department to make us a system that allows us to do that.”

With the loss of in-person fundraisers and the current restrictions for online games of chance, Riddell said his department is just keeping its head above water.

Bob Gabardi, who has been with the Sheppton-Oneida Fire Company for more than 50 years, is seeing the same thing in Sheppton.

“It’s very annoying to try to pay bills without money,” he said.

The online fundraisers worked great for the first few months of the pandemic and really filled in the gap until they were shut down. He hopes the state Senate agrees and gives fire companies the ability to raise funds again. They are all volunteers, and fundraising is where their money comes from, he said.

“We probably lost, from last year, $40,000 in fundraisers we couldn’t hold,” he added.

Joe Gavala, chief of West End Fire & Rescue in Mahanoy City, said fundraising is difficult enough, given the cost of the tools of the trade. An air pack alone costs $8,000, he said.

“How many hoagies do you have to sell and how many Bingos do you have to hold for one air pack?” he said.

Gavala added firefighters with his department probably conduct 10 to 20 times as much fundraising as they do actual emergency services work.

Helping fire companies is a bipartisan effort, Rep. Warner said, adding it’s something anyone in the Capitol can get behind.

“I still personally think it’s a shame that we have to fight for this,” Warner told the gathered firefighters. “I think this is a no-brainer. We’re not asking for the world, here, folks. We’re asking for non-profits and fire departments to reveal who a winner is on Facebook Live on a small-games-of-chance raffle.”

Warner said this bill is a small drop in the bucket for what the state should be doing for volunteer fire companies and non-profits, but it’s one small step forward.

Riddell said if this legislation becomes law, it’s less time he would have to spend fundraising and more time that he can spend training to fight fires and spend at home with his family.

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