GETTYSBURG — In 1976 a state report estimated the number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania to be about 300,000. Today, according to state Fire Commissioner Edward Mann, that number is closer to 50,000.
During a Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee hearing Friday held at the Adams County Emergency Services Facility in Gettysburg, firefighters, municipal officials and others painted a grim picture of the current status of firefighting in Pennsylvania.
“With the dramatic drop over the years in volunteer firefighters, there is concern that there may be a public safety crisis in coming years,” Mann said. He noted that 96 percent of firefighters statewide are volunteer. On top of that, paid departments are facing staffing crunches because of strapped municipal budgets.
In Wilkes-Barre last year, budget constraints led to Mayor Tom Leighton laying off 11 firefighters, though they were all rehired this year.
Wilkes-Barre Fire Chief Jay Delaney was among a dozen that were invited to offer testimony and he told the committee, which is chaired by Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, that today’s firefighters need extensive training which is both time consuming and costly.
“We are living in a post 9/11 era and all firefighters are emergency responders and need to be trained on all response disciplines, not just firefighting. The public demands trained, qualified emergency response personnel. … Our budgets cannot continue to absorb all the additional requirements placed on today’s firefighters,” Delaney said.
Baker, in her opening remarks, told those gathered and fellow senators on the committee, that they’ve assembled “some of the best – and bravest – minds in the business to assess the recruitment, retention, funding and training hurdles facing the firefighters of today – and tomorrow.”
State assistance is one of the most important tools departments — both paid and volunteer — rely on annually to help make purchases of equipment and vehicles.
Mann noted that Pennsylvania provides more than $150 million each year to the volunteer fire service through grant and loan programs.
Last year, the Fire Company-Volunteer Ambulance Service Grant Program was increased from $25 million to $30 million and for the first time ever the grant permits paid fire departments to apply, something Delaney noted in his testimony.
“This legislation was a huge boost to the commonwealth’s emergency response capability,” Delaney said.
A pending bill, which gained approval in the House, is Bill 1706, sponsored by Rep. Matt Baker, R-Wellsboro. It would double the current loan amounts offered through the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program (VLAP), which would mark the first major changes to the program since 1984.
“This is a valuable loan program that makes it possible for our financially challenged volunteer emergency service companies to purchase needed life-saving equipment and make updates to their facilities,” said Matt Baker. “The program’s loan amounts have not been adequately updated in more than 20 years. My legislation ensures the amount of the loans granted under the program is up to date with today’s costs.”
Lisa Baker said the entire hearing involved “a very candid conversation about the challenges facing both volunteer and career fire services.”
She said she supports Matt Baker’s house bill and hopes to fast track once the Senate reconvenes next month.
She said Friday’s hearing gave the players “the opportunity for us to begin mapping out a game plan to address (the issues at hand.)” She didn’t rule out future hearings and meetings with the stakeholders to continue the conversation.