Pa. lawmakers push bills to address fire, EMS shortage
A package of 23 bills are aimed at addressing the well-being of responders and providing incentives to recruit and retain volunteer and career responders
By Jan Murphy
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s growing shortage of volunteer and career firefighters and EMS providers has reached a point where state lawmakers are calling for action to avert a crisis like the one Rep. Stephen Barrar described at a Monday news conference.
“How would you feel if you had a fire or an accident or a life-threatening emergency and when you dialed 911, no one responded? These type of doomsday scenarios are not far-fetched,” said Barrar, R-Delaware County, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee. “If this trend continues, there may be a day when no one is there to respond to your call for help.”
Standing before a line of emergency responders and supportive Republican and Democratic House members outside the state Capitol, Barrar urged his House colleagues to pass a package of 23 bills aimed at addressing the wellbeing of emergency responders and providing incentives to recruit and maintain volunteer and career firefighters. The House is expected to consider those bills this week and in the coming weeks.
They include such proposals as offering tuition assistance, college loan forgiveness, property tax credits, cash incentives for length of service, and online training for firefighters. Other bills address the mental health needs of first responders, who routinely encounter high stress and have tragic scenes from responding to emergency situations etched in their memories.
“Each year, more police and emergency responders die at their own hand than in the line of duty,” Barrar said. “This needs to stop.”
Barrar is sponsoring a bill that would define post-traumatic stress injury and enable first responders suffering from it to receive mental health benefits under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Law.
J.T. Pennington, secretary-treasurer of the Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association and a captain in the Aliquippa Bureau of Fire, praised that bill’s inclusion in the package. In 2012, he was on a ladder fighting a structure fire when the ladder collapsed and he fell five stories injuring most of his body.
“As a result of the fall, I eventually underwent six surgeries in order to be able to return to work,” Pennington said. “All those physical injuries I received from the fall were covered by workmen’s comp except one. The injury that was not covered from the traumatic experiences that I suffered while doing my job and serving the citizens of Aliquippa was post-traumatic stress injury that I was diagnosed with by my employer’s doctor after the fall. This is not right and this is not fair.”
He said passing this bill to allow for treatment of post-traumatic injuries will save lives. “We are always there when the emergency call comes in and the citizens of Pennsylvania need us. Now we are asking our elected officials to be there when we need them," he said.
Other bills in the package would require insurance carriers to directly reimburse 911-dispatched ambulances instead of paying the insured who doesn’t always pass along the money to the ambulance company; increase surcharges on certain violations to enhance the EMS operating fund; and authorize fire departments to recoup costs for materials and equipment used in emergency responses. All of those measures were recommendations that came out of a two-year study examining the decline in volunteer firefighters and other issues facing emergency service providers.
Harrisburg Fire Chief Brian Enterline and Lower Allen Township fire inspector Bill Yeagley were among those on hand for the news conference that included a demonstration to show the difference sprinklers can make in minimizing the damage caused by a fire.
Both acknowledged that their fire departments have seen a decline in the number of firefighters so they are grateful lawmakers finally have made addressing their cries for help in addressing this issue a priority.
Enterline said the bills are gaining support because lawmakers are seeing their local ambulance or fire department closing up due to funding issues or a lack of volunteers. Some also may be hearing from constituents complaining about the length of time it takes for first responders to show up at an emergency scene.
“Before it wasn’t happening in their backyard. Now it’s happening in their backyard," Yeagley agreed.
Both admit this package of bills doesn’t completely address all the recommendations that came out of the two-year study. For example, firefighters also would like to see lawmakers give municipalities the option to pass sprinkler mandates as well as impose restrictions on fireworks.
Still, Enterline said it is "a start to get us in the right direction. This is an absolute crisis in Pennsylvania. It has been a festering issue for decades that has gotten very little support. I think we are finally in a good position where we have support on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate.”
©2019 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.)