Pa. House passes bills to address volunteer fire, EMS shortage

Length of service awards, college loan forgiveness, tuition assistance and local property tax credits may soon be among the incentives available to responders


By Jan Murphy
The Patriot-News

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Length of service awards, college loan forgiveness, tuition assistance, and local property tax credits may soon be among the incentives available to individuals who choose to serve as a volunteer firefighter in Pennsylvania.

The state House of Representatives passed a package of bills on Wednesday aimed at addressing a growing shortage of volunteer firefighter and EMS personnel that is nearing or at crisis levels in some communities around the state. Those measures, along with ones passed earlier in the week, now will go to the Senate for consideration.

The incentives to entice individuals to become a volunteer first responder are rooted in the recommendations that came from a two-year study examining the decline in volunteer firefighters and other issues facing emergency service providers.

Several of those issues were addressed at a news conference held on Monday outside the state Capitol that drew apparatus and emergency responders from around the state to highlight problems their fire companies and ambulance squads are encountering in finding people and money to keep their doors open.

Harrisburg Fire Chief Brian Enterline called it “an absolute crisis in Pennsylvania. It has been a festering issue for decades that has gotten very little support.” But he added the legislative interest in passing this package of bills is a step in the right direction.

Among the bills that passed the House is one that would establish the First Responder Loan Forgiveness Program. It would grant up to $16,000 in college loan forgiveness to students or graduates of Pennsylvania higher education institutions who meet certain eligibility requirements. Awards from this program to be administered by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency would only be made to the extent that state funds are appropriated.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence County, said he sees this proposed loan forgiveness program becoming a model that other states will follow “as they suffer the same problems we are here in Pennsylvania.”

The way he described it, it is a reward to be earned by people who do community service.

“It is not free,” Sainato said.

Other bills that are heading to the Senate to increase volunteerism in the first responder community and alleviate some burdens on it would:

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©2019 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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