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House of Representatives
Session of 2019 - 2020 Regular Session


Posted: July 29, 2019 03:02 PM
From: Representative R. Lee James
To: All House members
Subject: Volunteer Fire/EMS Companies and the Right-To-Know Law
In the immediate future, I plan to introduce legislation that will address a very urgent and time-consuming issue that has and continues to impact our volunteer fire and EMS companies throughout Pennsylvania. My proposal addresses one of the recommendations included in the 2018 SR 6 Commission Report issued last November, which highlights the problems our fire and EMS system is facing on a daily basis.

Pennsylvania’ fire and EMS companies continue to be subjected to requests for documents regarding the private operations of fire and EMS companies under the Right-To-Know Law (RTKL), also known as Act 3 of 2008.

The Office of Open Records (OOR) has issued and continues to issue Final Determinations stating that volunteer fire and EMS companies are considered “local agencies” under the RTKL and therefore are required to comply with all the provisions contained therein.

The underlying premise that the OOR relies on in its decisions is that volunteer fire and EMS companies are subject to the law because they are a “similar governmental entity” under the definition of a “Local agency.”

In addition, since the first OOR decision in 2009, several county courts have ruled that fire and EMS companies are not subject to the RTKL, yet others have ruled the opposite. Regardless, these decisions do not have a statewide impact and will require a ruling by the Commonwealth Court in order to have the decision apply across the state.

To this end, there were two cases that appeared before the Commonwealth Court within the past six months for consideration; however, the court remanded the cases back to the OOR with instructions to develop a factual record, which should include the relevant degree of governmental control a municipality has over a fire company, such as organizational structure, purposes, powers, duties and fiscal affairs, the function fire companies perform and whether it is a substantial facet of a governmental activity, and the degree of public funding provided to a fire company in relation to private funds; just to name a few.

It is my intention to have the General Assembly determine this statewide policy and not our court system.

I do not believe that the passage of Act 3 of 2008 was intended to capture our volunteer fire and EMS companies. Volunteer fire and EMS companies do not have the resources for this type of mandate, whether these resources are financial or human. Our volunteer emergency organizations should not be expending their resources on a governmental function, which does not and should not apply to a private emergency organization, especially when they are already struggling with recruitment and retention of first responders.

Any funding or assistance that is provided to our emergency services organizations through local or state government entities is naturally an open record under other various state and municipal codes that currently require reporting and documentation.

My legislation simply exempts volunteer fire and EMS companies from the RTKL. Therefore, my legislation will advance Recommendation #26 in the 2018 SR 6 Report.

If these decisions continue to stand, our fire and EMS companies will continue to be subjected to unlimited amounts of records requests under the RTKL; thereby, continuing to negatively impact our already struggling first responder organizations.

Please join me in sponsoring this important legislation to remove an unnecessary burden on our volunteer first responders.

Introduced as HB1780