The Center Square
Pennsylvania’s emergency services face a serious financial crisis — and a dire situation to recruit first responders and ensure their health.
The state’s inaction, combined with mounting demands, leaves firefighters frustrated. Emergency workers scale back their voluntary commitments or quit for easier jobs with higher pay. Many of them suffer from PTSD and health problems. Suicide rates eclipse the generation population.
During a House Republican Policy Committee hearing on Tuesday, politicians heard this and more about the plight of rural and smaller departments trying to provide public safety.
“Our fire service is imploded already. We’re past a crisis mode,” Whitehall Township Fire Chief David Nelson said. “All the stuff we’ve been talking about should’ve been done 10-15 years ago.”
Fire chiefs said their departments remain stretched thin. Fundraisers and grants keep them operating in the absence of local and state support.
“This is a problem that gets kicked down the road every time,” Slatedale Fire Department Captain Dennis Wetherhold said. “There is never a resolution.”
The Emerald Star Hose Fire Company in Lehigh County, for example, has a budget of about $200,000. It gets a $26,000 donation from the township, $12,000-$15,000 from state grants, and $11,000 from firemen’s relief, about $52,000.
“We have to make up the rest by fundraising,” Emerald Fire Chief Tito Burgos said.
“My vehicles are paid for by our hoagie money and our money that we raise here,” he added. Preventative maintenance, too, runs about $30,000 a year.
Grants are not automatic or easy to get, either. Simply finding grants to apply for takes time.
“You can go on Google and look for a grant, but you can’t go to one place to find all the state grants,” Burgos said. “A one-stop shop would be great if there was such a certain thing.”
The financial issue isn’t the full equation. A smaller cadre of volunteer firefighters means a heavier burden on the company, making more people less reluctant to answer a call.
“Burnout, not enough volunteers, relying on the same individuals — it’s hard for us to have families and life balance,” Burgos said.
Much of that burnout doesn’t come from devastating fires, but from less-critical problems like EMS calls, “water in the basement” calls, and medical calls.
“I really don’t think the general public has any idea — or very little idea — in the situation that we’re into today, and really how it could dynamically change in the next few years,” Brian Carl, deputy chief of the Weisenberg Volunteer Fire Department, said. “When you dial 911, you might be waiting a while.”
Burgos and Carl listed some ideas to boost recruitment, such as earned income tax credits, retirement plans, tax incentives for employers who let workers leave to respond to a call, length of service rewards, and recruitment at the high school level.
Regionalization and consolidation, in some cases, could also help firefighters pool resources and lower costs, Carl said.
“County-wide services is where we need to start going,” Nelson said.
“This committee really needs to come up with some bold moves and suggestions,” said John Price, director of emergency services and fire chief in Emmaus.
Without such changes, officials warned of more-dire consequences. EMS providers have noticed a greater threat of physical violence against their workers in recent years, at the hands of the public and themselves.
“A disturbing trend has been realized over the last several years. Suicides in EMS and emergency services have surpassed line-of-duty deaths,” said Donald DeReamus, the legislative committee chair for the Ambulance Association of Pennsylvania and a paramedic.
If reform comes, firefighters want to see the changes be straightforward.
“We would appreciate any help you guys can provide for this situation, but please try to make it simple,” Carl said.
Legislators spoke of how more rules and regulations have worsened the position of first responders.
“We make it harder, it seems like every year, for someone to become a firefighter, and then we complain or are concerned that there’s not more people becoming firefighters,” Rep. Josh Kail, R-Beaver, said. “We’re creating a part of the problem ourselves.”
They also showed a recognition that change won’t come without more government spending.
“I do want fellow legislators to understand that there’s gonna be a cost involved, there’s gonna be a vote involved — we cannot vote to do nothing,” Rep. Mark Gillen, R-Reading, said. “We have to proactively decide what is the best route to the finish line.”
The Republican Policy Committee hearing comes a few weeks after a similar one from House Democrats. That hearing, as The Center Square previously reported, focused on the decline of fundraising and volunteer staff, and talked of potential state-level fees to cover costs.