Report: Pa. volunteer firefighter shortage is a 'public safety crisis'

According to a report, Pennsylvania needs to provide funding and take other action to fight a "public safety crisis" due to a decline in volunteer firefighters


By Michelle Bond
Philly.com

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania needs to provide funding and incentives, and take other actions to fight a "public safety crisis" resulting from a dramatic decline in volunteer firefighters during the last 40 years in the state – and nationally – according to a report released Wednesday.

About 300,000 people volunteered as firefighters in Pennsylvania in the 1970s, and that number has dwindled to fewer than 38,000, said the commission of Pennsylvania lawmakers, municipal officials and emergency service professionals that produced the report.

More than 90 percent of the state's roughly 2,400 fire companies are volunteer.

Emergency service groups estimate volunteer first responders save Pennsylvania communities about $10 billion per year. Volunteer agencies throughout Pennsylvania have turned to hiring full-time or part-time staff to fill the volunteer gap.

Meanwhile, the number of calls to which firefighters respond has increased with more medical and hazardous material calls, false alarms, and faulty smoke detectors. Communities have fewer trained personnel — whether volunteer or staff — available to respond to emergencies.

To bolster the ranks of emergency services, the state should centralize its fragmented fire services; and offer more tax credits, education credits, and other incentives to attract and retain volunteers, according to the report.

"I've never been one to cry wolf. Never in my life. And I'm saying we are in a [public safety] crisis," said state Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R., Allegheny), co-chair of the commission and chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee. "While individually, these recommendations won't solve all the problems, together they can help preserve these two groups of first responders that are there when we are at our most vulnerable."

 

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It cited the need for "resources, funds, and legislative change" to improve public safety. Its authors want local fire and emergency medical services companies to use the report to ask their municipal officials for financial and staffing support.

State Rep. Steve Barrar (R., Chester/Delaware), co-chair of the commission and chair of the House Veterans' Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, called the report "our playbook going into the next legislative session."

The 39 commission members included fire and emergency medical services groups, municipal organizations, the majority and minority chairmen of the Senate's and House's Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committees, and the acting state fire commissioner. The chairs of the Senate's emergency preparedness committee had called for the report, which originally was due June 30 but was granted a five-month extension.

Meanwhile, fire departments across the region and the country have turned to marketing campaigns, recruitment centers, billboards, commercials in movie theaters, and mailers to attract volunteers.

Wednesday's report follows up on a 2004 assessment from another state commission, which identified the same issues.

"The delay or failure to take appropriate action has continued to extend and expand the challenges facing Pennsylvania emergency services," the report released Wednesday said.

Part of the problem has been the decentralized nature of fire service in Pennsylvania. Recruiting and retaining volunteers has been a local responsibility, but the authors of the report said the commonwealth must share it.

The report recommends Pennsylvania turn the Office of the State Fire Commissioner into a standalone office that reports directly to the governor, instead of an office under the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

The state would task the office with providing technical assistance to fire departments and collecting data on the state of fire protection. Members of the commission said even getting an up-to-date figure of the number of volunteer firefighters in the state was a challenge.

The nearly 100 recommendations for local agencies and the state include:

  • Create a single state-wide recruiting tool and website.
  • Partner with the Department of Education to offer high school and college credit to volunteers and work with community colleges and state universities to offer free tuition to firefighters and emergency medical professionals.
  • Remove regulatory and other barriers to encourage emergency service agencies to combine into regional companies.
  • Provide free background checks through the Pennsylvania State Police or local police.
  • Partner with colleges to provide housing for students who volunteer and explore offering college loan forgiveness.
  • Set minimum training standards for firefighters that companies can adjust for urban, suburban, and rural environments.
  • Fund basic fire and emergency medical technician training.
  • Consider tax or other financial incentives for employers that allow employees to leave work for scheduled emergency services training.

Lawmakers introduced more than a dozen bills to support firefighters and emergency medical services agencies this legislative session. Of those, one bill — compensating EMS agencies for services even if they don't transport anyone to a hospital — made it to the governor's desk. Legislators plan to reintroduce those that did not advance.

Commission members hope to meet at least once or twice a year to check progress and adjust recommendations if circumstances change.

"In the past it's always been, 'Here's the work and let's hope it takes a hold,'" said Beau Crowding, Chester County's deputy director for fire services.

Neil Vaughn, president of the Chester County Fire Chiefs Association, said Wednesday's report outlines the support that the state's fire service needs.

"Now," he said, "we just have to make sure [it's] being followed through."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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