cutler.jpg

House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Peach Bottom, speaks at a "Helpers and Heroes" news conference about a legislative package to increase volunteerism for EMS and firefighters on Oct. 21, 2019.

THE ISSUE

Responding to ongoing staffing struggles for Pennsylvania’s volunteer first responders, the state House in October passed “more than a dozen bills that help recruit, retain and show respect for those willing to put their lives on the line for their friends and neighbors,” according to a news release on the website of Republican House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler of Peach Bottom. “For (Pennsylvania) firefighters alone, the number of volunteers has dropped from 300,000 in the 1970s to less than 38,000 today,” LNP’s Gillian McGoldrick reported Wednesday. “And 90% of Pennsylvania’s fire force depends on volunteers.”

We applaud these bills and are glad they are moving through Harrisburg relatively swiftly. The safety of our state’s residents should be a priority in the Capitol, and so it goes that we must have enough volunteer first responders in all corners of the state to ensure that safety.

We have been sounding the bell for action on this front. In May, we wrote: “This is such a crucial topic for Pennsylvanians that we plan to keep revisiting it until there’s good progress. We do not have the luxury of time in figuring out how to keep our vital network of first responders adequately staffed and funded. If coverage goes away, there’s no backup waiting in the wings.”

Our lawmakers in the state House have taken notice. Highlights of the legislation passed in October include the establishment of online training programs for firefighters; authorizations for both counties and school districts to offer a property tax credit for volunteer first responders; the creation of a First Responder Loan Forgiveness Program under the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency; the launch of a Tuition Assistance for Active Volunteers Program; and an amendment to the state tax code that would exempt volunteer service providers from the realty transfer tax.

Some of the other House bills are more byzantine, but they all get to the point of making it easier and more financially viable for those courageous women and men who raise their hand to serve as first responders in our communities.

“The number of volunteers answering that call is shrinking more and more each day,” Cutler stated in a news release. “It was crucial for the House to act on these bills, and we encourage the Senate to act just as quickly as their responders would for them.”

We agree. We urge the state Senate and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to propel these bills into law.

We also owe first responders “everything in our power to grow their ranks to ensure responders will always be there to answer the call,” Cutler stated in his release.

Following that thought, we hope this slate of bills is just the start of the crucial work that must be done in Harrisburg on this issue.

Commenting on LancasterOnline, reader Scott Weichler noted that “all of this is great, but what volunteer fire companies need the most is money. We need better financial support from our local governments. The days of fundraising letters, chicken barbecues, breakfasts, and festivals cannot meet the financial needs any longer. The ability to raise money has increased only incrementally, while the costs of fire apparatus, gear and equipment have increased exponentially.

“Allow firefighters to do what they joined to do — train and respond to calls,” Weichler concluded. “Don’t make them continue to have to raise the money to do so safely.”

Weichler said it well. Our municipalities, our counties and Harrisburg must provide the necessary funding to first responders to ensure their sustainability and safety.

As the state House Republican Caucus notes, it costs more than $28,000 to equip one firefighter with the proper equipment. A new ambulance costs between $80,000 and $150,000. And cardiac monitors run about $35,000 apiece.

Chicken dinner fundraisers can’t pay those kind of tabs anymore.

We agree with Bareville Fire Company Chief Randy Smith and Bart Township Fire Department Chief George LeFevre, who stressed to LNP’s McGoldrick that first responders need more mental health resources from the General Assembly.

To that end, House Bill 1459, which was part of the October package, creates the Emergency Responder Mental Wellness and Stress Management Program for first responders, including 911 dispatchers and coroners. Its funding comes from increasing the fine for traffic violations from $10 to $20 and increasing Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition fines from $25 to $50.

We think that’s a good start. Part of bolstering recruitment and retention is showing that we will provide outstanding mental health care for our first responders. It is a service they need and deserve for putting their lives at risk for us. As Bareville’s Smith told McGoldrick, “We see a lot of stuff and you can’t always leave it there.”

Smith also notes that local fire departments could use some help with their bookkeeping. “It frees guys up to do what they joined to do,” he said. Surely, that’s a volunteer task that some people in our communities could handle as a way of contributing to our first responder teams.

There are myriad ways in which we can and must help our vital first responders. We appreciate that it’s a focus of our state lawmakers, but we all should think about how we might help in our communities.