Pennsylvania has a long history of volunteer firefighting that can be traced back to 1736, when Benjamin Franklin founded the nation’s first volunteer fire company in Philadelphia. It is a rich tradition our communities cannot afford to lose. But that is exactly what is at risk, as volunteer fire companies in our region and statewide struggle with rising operating costs and declining membership.
The numbers tell the troubling story. During the 1970s, Pennsylvania had approximately 300,000 volunteer firefighters. There are only about 38,000 dedicated men and women who answer the call today. State fire officials say the time could soon come when a 911 center dispatches a fire company, and no one responds.
The Pennsylvania Fire Company and Emergency Medical Services Grant Program provides some financial relief every year, but it is not nearly enough. This fiscal year, 14 fire and emergency medical services organizations that serve the 134th Legislative District shared in nearly $174,000 awarded through the program. All told, state government currently provides more than $100 million annually to fire and ambulance companies through various assistance programs.
I work with first responders and local elected officials to help get them state funding support and have also changed the law to assist them financially, where necessary. For instance, when some fire companies in my district were merging to save money, they were hit with a state realty transfer tax when the old entities transitioned to a new entity. I crafted legislation to eliminate the realty transfer tax for fire and ambulance companies going through a merger, to not only save them money but also enable them to retroactively get money back, saving these local departments thousands of dollars. That bill ended up being Act 52 of 2013
The General Assembly is also working to address the challenges faced by Pennsylvania’s first responders. A major study resulted in nearly 30 recommendations that are currently under consideration. In addition, 14 new laws were enacted during the 2019-20 legislative session, ranging from expanded funding for training to a new mental wellness program.
In addition, it is critical for all of us to do our part and provide financial support to our local fire and ambulance companies. Donating and fundraising are important, and we can and should contribute, but the state needs to provide more financial resources so volunteers can spend more time training and responding to calls, and less time on raising money.
I appreciate the hard work and dedication of every volunteer department in the region and will continue to fight for them in Harrisburg, so they have the resources they need to protect our lives and serve our communities.