Pa. lawmakers grapple with volunteer firefighter shortage
Fire and government officials all agree Pennsylvania's volunteer departments are having difficulty recruiting and keeping members — and the current course is not sustainable in a state that relies so heavily on citizen firefighters.
Where the chiefs and politicians split in various directions: what to do next.
Several municipalities have passed “fire taxes," tithes from which all the money raised goes directly to funding fire departments.
In 2015, at least 13 York County municipalities levied fire taxes, according to county spokesman Carl Lindquist. Five of the 35 townships and eight of the 36 boroughs have specific breakouts in their general tax rate for emergency services, in amounts ranging from .077 mills in Windsor to .952 in Yoe — that’s $7.70 to $95.20 per year on a house valued at $100,000.
A lack of a fire tax doesn't mean a municipality doesn’t provide money to the local volunteer department. It’s the norm for the townships and boroughs to contribute some money, but it’s usually a far lower amount than a fire tax would raise.
Shrewsbury Fire Chief Tony Myers said the .42 mills his borough levies for fire services have been a big help for the department.
“We’re totally supported now by the fire tax,” he said.
They had received a smaller allotment from the borough before that, and had to make up the difference with their own fundraising. The fact that they don’t do that anymore has been a big relief to him and his firefighters, who can now concentrate on what they signed up for: protecting lives and property.
Investment: Fairview Township Fire Chief Chris Weidenhammer’s department covers the township and the borough of Lewisberry. Neither has a dedicated fire tax, but he said local government nonetheless has invested heavily in the department, and he thinks that’s made a big difference.
He said the number of volunteer firefighters at his department has held steady in recent years, and he said a big reason for that is the fact the department's three stations and the equipment in them are all new and well-maintained. There aren't frustrations over stuff not working well, and, in what's maybe the best part, they don't have to fundraise in order to have it.
“The lack of having to do the fundraising lets us focus” on emergency response, he said.
The department also augments its volunteer firefighters with part-time paid drivers who work during the day. It takes extra training to become a driver, so many departments only have a few. And that can create a bottleneck in an emergency; even if you get several firefighters to show up, it’s all for naught if none of them are permitted to drive the truck.
Weidenhammer’s department had been part of the township since its inception, and then Lewisberry joined a few years ago. The borough had had its own department, but decided this would be more prudent to contract services from Fairview.
Weidenhammer said he believes this is the way of the future — especially with the patchwork of tiny municipalities covering Pennsylvania, often each with their own little departments.
“That model doesn’t work,” he said.
“In boroughs, they’re not gonna get more population — they’re not going to get an influx of volunteers,” he said. “Pretty much what they have is what they have.”
He called regionalization a “necessity” for many departments.
“We really have to do a better job pooling resources,” he said. “The call volumes aren’t going down — they’re going up.”
Legislation: A raft of proposed legislation introduced in past years at the state level has sought a way to address the issue of a lack of volunteer firefighters. The most recent iteration, which passed the state Senate last summer, would allow municipalities to provide earned-income-tax deductions to volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel.
State Sen. Pat Vance, a Cumberland County-based Republican whose district covers a swath of northwestern York County, co-sponsored the bill designed to provide a bit of relief for those who donate time and effort to keep their neighbors safe.
Vance, who lives in Silver Springs Township in Cumberland County, said her municipality does have a fire tax. She said she believes it passed very easily, as “any right-thinking citizen knows” how important it is to have a strong fire department.
In York County, all municipalities besides York City levy a half of 1 percent earned-income tax on their residents. That’s standard across the state: Almost all Pennsylvania municipalities are locked in at .5 percent, unable to raise or lower the rate, according to KC McCleary, a deputy director of the York office of the York-Adams Tax Bureau.
Among the very few exceptions to this, he said, is York City, which levies an additional .25 percent, with the income from that going to relief of the city’s pension fund; this is permitted because of the city’s status as a financially distressed municipality, McCleary said.
Were this law to pass, it would allow each York County municipality to grant full or partial tax breaks on its earned-income tax. For someone who makes $30,000 a year, half a percent works out to $150 per year, an amount that likely would come via a tax rebate upon filing, McCleary figured.
The bill doesn’t provide any way for volunteers to receive credit for the .5 percent to .9 percent earned income tax levied by each school district in the county.
During the 2013-14 legislative session, state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, who originally sponsored the legislation, produced a report on the challenges facing fire departments around the state. She advocated for a “holistic approach.” One part of that was what this year’s bill would provide — tax breaks to volunteers.
It also offered up a range of other ideas, including offering scholarships or other kinds of tax or fee breaks to volunteers, allowing departments to charge fees for tasks such as pumping water from flooded basements and levying a tax on pyrotechnics, from which all the money would go to local fire departments.
It also mentioned giving tax breaks to businesses that employ volunteer firefighters, or to employers that allow volunteers to leave for calls during work hours. Wellsville Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Larry Anderson said he thinks something like that could be a big help.
“I believe the state’s gotta step up sometime soon,” said the firefighter of 31 years. “Make a reason for people to volunteer.”
He said he thinks the best way would be to dangle incentives in front of employers — give them a reason to hire employees who may have to run out from time to time and fight a fire. Right now, not all employers are willing — or able — to let that happen.
“Some of ‘em are, some of ‘em aren’t,” he said.
— Reach Sean Cotter at firstname.lastname@example.org.