Many of us take it for granted that if we experience an emergency, all we have to do is call 9-1-1 and help will quickly be on the way. But what if I told you the volunteer ranks of our emergency response organizations have dropped from nearly 300,000 back in the 1970s to only about 37,000 today? And that even many paid fire and ambulance companies are struggling to fill positions?
This is the reality facing our region and communities across the state, whether urban, suburban or rural. We all need to do what we can to support the emergency responders who are a cornerstone of our Commonwealth’s public safety infrastructure. That includes the Legislature, and I’m proud to report we are taking action.
Nearly two dozen bills that were introduced based on recommendations made by the 39-member SR6 Commission are moving through the legislative process as I write. Broadly speaking, the “Helpers and Heroes” package of bills, which I proudly co-sponsored, is designed to encourage volunteerism, enhance access to training and provide more flexible funding options to emergency response organizations.
Our ultimate goal is to advance policies to help our fire and ambulance companies continue to provide the vital, life-saving services our communities need.
In order to best identify the challenges and develop effective solutions, our colleagues in the Senate adopted Senate Resolution 6, calling for a study of the current state of our emergency services system. The 39-member commission was comprised of representatives of the major fire and EMS organizations, as well as leaders from throughout the Commonwealth. Harold Whyel of the Point Marion Volunteer Fire Department in Fayette County was among the commission members, representing a county firemen’s association in the western part of the state.
The commission met for most of a year and issued a report making 27 recommendations to address issues like staffing, funding and training needs.
A top priority is providing tools to fire and ambulance companies, as well as communities they serve, to offer incentives to recruit and retain volunteers. Two of these proposals build on a law I sponsored in 2016 that authorizes local governing bodies to offer income and/or property tax credits for active volunteer first responders. House Bills 1705
would give school districts and counties, respectively, the option of enacting a tax credit against the property tax liability of active volunteers of a fire or EMS company.
Additional financial incentive tools under consideration include House Bill 1673
, which would allow volunteer fire relief money to be used for recruitment and retention incentives such as length of service awards or safety training support. House Bill 1773
would provide tuition assistance to first responders, while House Bill 1786
would offer up to $16,000 in higher education loan forgiveness assistance. House Bill 376 would provide a tax credit of up to $500 for volunteers who purchase firefighting or other relevant equipment using their own money.
To boost funding for first responder organizations, we are looking at bills to expand the existing Volunteer Loan Assistance Program to include all emergency responder organizations (House Bill 1448
) and increase by 10% the maximum loan amounts available through the program (House Bill 1816
). House Bill 1834
would reauthorize the annual fire and EMS grant program.
To assist with training, Senate Bill 146
would make online training more readily available to current and prospective first responders. House Bill 1838 would aid ambulance companies by aiming to increase funding for the Emergency Medical Services Operating Fund and investing that money in training for underserved rural areas.
We owe so much to the men and women who volunteer their limited free time, as well as those who dedicate their professional lives, to serving our communities as first responders. To all who actively serve, those who served in the past and those looking to serve in the future, I thank you.
For more information about legislative efforts to support our first responders, visit PAHouseGOP.com
Representative Ryan Warner
52nd Legislative District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Patricia Hippler