Pennsylvania relies on volunteer firefighters more than most states in the country. 97 percent of fire departments are registered as volunteer or mostly volunteer. The problem, the number of volunteer firefighters is dwindling.
“It’s an issue throughout the state,” said Shirl Barnhart, a Township Supervisor in Morgan Township, Greene County, and also a volunteer firefighter and EMT. “If you have a group of people willing to volunteer and spend their time training and doing all of this for free. You want to support this as much as possible.”
Barnhart said a big reason behind the change is ever-changing training requirements, that are rigorous and time-consuming. “It’s a definite commitment. The state has these regulations that all firefighters have to attend a minimum amount of training. You can’t even get on a truck unless you have a hazmat refresher course every year.”
The problem caught the attention of Township Supervisors from across the state who discussed the topic at the annual Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors conference.
“Our young volunteers are really stressed for time to commit to their community,” said Lester Houck, Salisbury Township, Lancaster County Supervisor and President of PSATS.
Senator Lisa Baker (R-20) and Senator Sean Wiley (D-49) have joined forces to introduce a bill to give municipalities the power to waive their local earned income tax for volunteer first responders. Volunteers at nonprofit emergency medical service (EMS) agencies would also be eligible to receive the tax credit.
“If every local government in Pennsylvania had to convert to a paid firefighting force, it would cost an estimated $6 billion,” Baker said. “Giving firefighters a small break on their local taxes is a simple benefit that will compensate them in some small measure for their priceless life-saving work.”
Under the legislation, municipalities would have the power to set the amount of the tax credit and the guidelines of the program, including specifying the number of calls to which a volunteer must answer and the level of training they must have.
“Although the tax credit program would not be mandatory, we hope every municipality will see the virtue of keeping and attracting its volunteer firefighters. When those first flames begin, we cannot afford to sound the alarm and have no one come,” Baker explained.
Baker and Wiley said the bill is expected to be part of a larger package of incentives to fill the rapidly declining ranks of our volunteer firefighters and EMTs, which have dropped from 300,000 to 50,000 in 30 years. The decrease is blamed largely on the prevalence of two-income families, an over-emphasis on fire department fundraising, local leadership conflicts, and the stagnant economy. Baker has formed a working group to advance other strategies for a comprehensive First Responder Relief package.