HARRISBURG – Emergency services throughout the tri-county area are struggling, said Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion/Armstrong/Forest), and that is why she lent her support over the past two weeks to a multi-faceted, bipartisan legislative package to help recruit and retain volunteer first responders.
Dubbed the “Helpers and Heroes” package, the series of bills would help to recruit newer generations of first responders, both firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs). The average age of a firefighter in Pennsylvania is in the mid-to-late 40s and early 50s.
“Every time the fire alarm rings throughout our communities, multiple stations are called because of the dwindling number of volunteers who can respond,” Oberlander said. “Many reasons for this exist, especially with volunteers needing to work out of town during the day or being unable to leave their places of employment. That is why we consider it a high priority this month – National Fire Prevention Month – to do what we can to better encourage men and women to join the ranks of our response agencies.”
Oberlander noted that the value of volunteer fire and emergency medical services (EMS) companies cannot be underestimated. State fire officials estimate that volunteer firefighters save Pennsylvania communities about $10 billion annually.
To help recruit the next generation of volunteers, bills passing the House would offer various tax credits and allow existing fire relief funds to retain and incentivize new members. The package would also introduce tuition assistance and loan forgiveness programs for first responders.
To assist companies with the level of fundraising they must do to afford equipment, trucks and training, legislation seeks to offer more low-interest loans and at greater amounts, as well as exempting them from the state’s open records law and copy fees for police reports. Another measure in the package would allow fire and EMS companies to extend the popular state grant program to pay for recruitment of junior firefighters.
For EMS companies, one of the bills would increase surcharges assessed upon vehicular moving violations and DUI convictions.
“In our rural area, this proposal would address the challenges we face by directing some of the surcharges to help pay for training and medical equipment for ambulances,” Oberlander added.
Another bill in the package is designed to assist first responders – including 911 dispatchers and coroners – with emotional trauma they have faced while responding to calls. The measure, which would create the Emergency Responder Mental Wellness and Stress Management Program, would increase traffic fines from $10 to $20 – the first change in more than 20 years.
“Our first responders are the people we rely on when we are faced with some of life’s toughest moments,” said Oberlander. “Over the past few years, we have seen what these dedicated men and women go through and the sacrifices they make to save our lives and our property. While we know this package will not solve all of the problems that exist, we do hope that these efforts can make a positive difference in our communities.”
The package of bills now heads to the state Senate for consideration.
More information about Helpers and Heroes is online at pahousegop.com/helpersandheroes
Representative Donna Oberlander
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Jennifer Algoe Keaton