As a series of dire warnings from fire chiefs and lawmakers have sought to raise the alarm over the future of Pennsylvania’s volunteer fire departments, the state announced Tuesday it would be providing about $60 million this year to support the departments.
Funded by the proceeds of a tax on insurance policies sold by out-of-state companies in Pennsylvania, the annual disbursement of money to the state’s volunteer fire relief associations is about $5 million more than last year’s, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said at a news conference Tuesday.
“Relief associations count on this money to purchase life saving equipment, fund critical training, and provide insurance for thousands of volunteer firefighters,” DePasquale said.
DePasquale’s office is responsible for the distribution of the money to the relief associations, and it also conducts audits of how the volunteer entities spend the money.
According to DePasquale, volunteer fire companies are responsible for about 90 percent of the fire protection in the state, but the number of volunteer firefighters has declined from about 300,000 in the 1970s to just 35,000 today.
“Nobody signs up to be a volunteer firefighter because they secretly want to work as a fundraiser,” DePasquale said. “They want to fight fires, save lives and be an active member of their community. In fact, the constant need to raise funds may be a reason why fewer people these days are actually choosing to volunteer. It is very, very difficult to recruit volunteer firefighters.”
The auditor general, who is term-limited in his current position and is gearing up for a run for Congress, has thrown his support behind proposals that would ease some of the spending restrictions on the relief associations.
“There are some departments that have both paid professional and volunteers on the exact same job, but the volunteers can have one type of equipment paid for by this money and the paid professional cannot,” DePasquale said Tuesday. “And that is something that I believe the legislature should remedy.”
Othe efforts to try to reverse the decline in volunteer firefighting include bills pending in the Legislature that would provide tuition assistance and loan forgiveness for college studies for those who serve a certain amount of time with a volunteer fire company.
DePasquale emphasized that the state aid to volunteer fire companies is only part of the funding equation.
“The 60 million I announced today is obviously helpful today to volunteer fire departments,” he said. “But it only goes so far. So when you do see the chicken dinners … or the car washes and stuff like that, please understand that that is going to an important cause of keeping our community safe. So no matter what role you play in the community, whether you're the actual volunteer, or just helping chip in with a couple of dollars, it all has an impact.”