By Rep. Steve Mentzer (R-Lititz)
A strange noise (a possible burglar?) awakens you in the middle of the night.
A loved one collapses and is in need of medical assistance you cannot provide.
A fire breaks out in your home.
In each instance, your first instinct is to dial 9-1-1. What if you did…and no one responded to your call for help? In 1977, there were 300,000 volunteer firefighters. Today, the number is closer to 50,000. Three years ago, former State Fire Commissioner Edward Mann told a House committee, “Sooner or later, somebody’s going to dial 911 and the 911 center is going to dispatch a fire department and nobody’s going to show up.” His words should send a chill through every one of us.
In January, the House and Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness committees announced a renewed effort to assist Pennsylvania’s first responders. In essence, we want to reignite the effort sparked by Senate Resolution 60 of 2003, which established a special bipartisan legislative commission to develop legislation to provide direct and indirect assistance for the purpose of improving the delivery of emergency services in Pennsylvania.
In 2005, the commission released a report that focused on issues such as recruitment and delivery of services, common problems among fire departments and ambulance corps across the state. A set of recommendations was developed with the intention of providing needed assistance to Pennsylvania’s emergency service providers.
In the spirit of Senate Resolution 60, the General Assembly is working on corresponding legislation that addresses the following issues:
• School district/community college training partnerships for first responders.
• College loan forgiveness for first responders.
• Online training for first responders.
• Tax credits for employers of firefighters.
• Post-traumatic stress disorder training.
• Allowing volunteer fire companies to bill for “actual and reasonable costs” (which does not include manpower).
• Review of the Statewide Insurance Fund (related to the Cancer Presumption Law).
• Allow career firefighters to participate in the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program.
Dr. Albert Schweitzer is credited with saying, “Even if it is a little thing, do something for which there is no pay but the privilege of doing it.” Our emergency responders are there for us in our time of need – a very BIG thing – and do not get paid for it. They consider it a privilege and a duty to help their fellow man when the call goes out.
But their numbers are dwindling and times are different than they were when a fire company was not far from your home. In the mid-1990s, a study done in Adams County projected at least $20 million to start a paid fire department. The annual operating costs were estimated at around $10 million. Imagine how those numbers have changed with 20 years of inflation.
We rely now more than ever on volunteers who also have full-time jobs. These fire companies and ambulance services can only sell so many sandwiches and chicken barbecue dinners. They need as much help as we can give them and they deserve the tools they need to retain and attract those men and women who feel a call to service.
Losing our volunteer emergency services would place a significant tax burden on our citizens and municipalities. Homeowners’ policies would also see an increase because of the distance our fire departments would have to travel.
These are even more reasons why we need to help our local volunteer fire departments and urge our municipalities to help them as well. By supporting our volunteers, we are also helping ourselves.