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State's firefighter shortage may lead to 'public safety crisis'

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By The Times Leader (Wilkes-barre)
Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 4:15 p.m.
 

GETTYSBURG — In 1976, a state report estimated the number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania at 300,000. Today, according to state Fire Commissioner Edward Mann, that number is closer to 50,000.

During a Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee hearing on Friday in the Adams County Emergency Services Facility, firefighters, municipal officials and others painted a grim picture of the status of firefighting in Pennsylvania.

“With the dramatic drop over the years in volunteer firefighters, there is concern that there may be a public safety crisis in coming years,” Mann said.

He noted that 96 percent of firefighters statewide are volunteers. On top of that, paid departments are facing staffing crunches because of strapped municipal budgets.

In Wilkes-Barre last year, budget constraints led Mayor Tom Leighton to lay off 11 firefighters, although all were rehired this year.

Wilkes-Barre fire Chief Jay Delaney was among a dozen who were invited to offer testimony during the hearing. He told the committee that firefighters need extensive training, which is time-consuming and costly.

“We are living in a post-9/11 era, and all firefighters are emergency responders and need to be trained on all response disciplines, not just firefighting. The public demands trained, qualified emergency response personnel. Our budgets cannot continue to absorb all the additional requirements placed on today's firefighters,” Delaney said.

In her opening remarks, the committee's chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehigh, said the panel assembled “some of the best — and bravest — minds in the business to assess the recruitment, retention, funding and training hurdles facing the firefighters of today — and tomorrow.”

State assistance is one of the most important tools that departments — paid and volunteer — rely on annually to help purchase equipment and vehicles.

Mann noted that Pennsylvania provides more than $150 million each year to the volunteer fire service through grant and loan programs.

Last year, the Fire Company-Volunteer Ambulance Service Grant Program was increased from $25 million to $30 million, and for the first time the grant permits paid fire departments to apply, something Delaney noted in his testimony.

“This legislation was a huge boost to the commonwealth's emergency response capability,” Delaney said.

A pending bill, which gained approval in the House, is Bill 1706, sponsored by Rep. Matt Baker, R-Tioga County. It would double the loan amounts offered through the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program, which would mark the first major changes to the program since 1984.

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