|Posted:||December 4, 2018 02:31 PM|
|From:||Senator Judy Ward|
|To:||All Senate members|
|Subject:||Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Service Personnel|
|I am reintroducing a package of bills (Senate Bills 70-71) from last session aimed at volunteer firefighters as well as other emergency service personnel. Volunteers are a crucial part of our fire and emergency medical service delivery system in Pennsylvania. A 2018 report issued by the Senate Resolution 6 Commission, established to recommend improvements to the delivery of emergency services in the Commonwealth, stated the following: “Of Pennsylvania’s 2,462 fire companies, more than 90 percent are volunteer companies.” In addition, a 2001 study by the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute estimated that the service provided by our volunteers is valued at $6 billion annually. In today’s dollars the amount may be as high as $10 billion.
Sadly, however, the number of volunteer firefighters has decreased from 300,000 in the 1970’s to 38,000 in 2018. The drop in the number of volunteers can be attributed to the fact that they have to raise funds as well as fight fires. This downward trend in emergency service volunteers is so disconcerting that legislative members (Majority and Minority Chairs of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committees) of the Senate Resolution 6 Commission stated that “Fire and EMS are in a crisis – right now. Simply put, EMS is woefully lacking in funding – and the number of volunteer firefighters has fallen dramatically over the decades.” The report states that “The Commission recommends that the General Assembly act as expeditiously as possible to enact a series of incentives to stem the decline in emergency service volunteerism, to help retain the dedicated volunteers we still have, and to attract the next generation of recruits in the proud neighbor-helping-neighbor tradition of our volunteer emergency service organizations.” Given the fact that volunteer firefighters and other emergency service personnel risk their lives each day to preserve and protect the safety and welfare of others, with little or no recompense, it is incumbent upon us to enact incentives that help volunteer companies recruit new members and support current members.
Introduced as SB64
The first bill, Senate Bill 70, amends the Police Officer, Firefighter, Correction Employee and National Guard Member Child Beneficiary Education Act to expand the tuition waiver program to include surviving spouses of deceased firefighters, emergency medical services personnel, state parole agents, and county probation and parole officers. Pennsylvania, like many states, has a tuition free program for children of deceased firefighters and other individuals (i.e., police officers, National Guard members). According to information from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, 31 states (i.e., New Jersey, New York, Maryland and Ohio) have laws that extend their tuition waiver program to surviving spouses of the firefighters who are killed while acting in the performance of their duties.
By amending the act, the benefits of the tuition free program will also apply to surviving spouses of police officers, correction employees, sheriffs, deputy sheriffs, National Guard members and certain other individuals on active military duty who are killed in the line of duty. According to data (2016) from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, 51 individuals have graduated from college under the Postsecondary Education Gratuity Program since the start of the program in 1999.
Introduced as SB65
The second piece, Senate Bill 71, is the proposed Volunteer Emergency Service Tuition Credit Program Act. The legislation establishes a tuition credit program for members of a volunteer fire company, volunteer ambulance service or voluntary rescue squad who are active and in good standing. Volunteer members, including their dependent children and spouse, may enroll in postsecondary education courses on a tuition credit basis in a community college. Each volunteer is eligible to receive tuition credit of up to $600 per year, not to exceed a maximum of $2,400 over a four year service period, provided that available classroom space permits and that tuition paying students constitute the minimum number required for courses.
In order to be eligible to receive tuition credit, a volunteer shall agree to serve as a member of a volunteer fire company, volunteer ambulance service or voluntary rescue squad for a minimum of four years. Following each year of volunteer service performed, the captain or chief of the volunteer organization must provide the State Fire Commissioner with a letter verifying that the volunteer has been a member in good standing. Upon verification, the Commissioner shall issue a certificate of authorization that may be presented to the community college by the volunteer or eligible family member during the enrollment period. The volunteer or the dependent child or spouse must maintain a “C” grade average in order to continue eligibility for the tuition credit program. This proposal is modeled after a New Jersey tuition credit program for certain volunteers. In addition, my legislation reflects Recommendation #1 in the Senate Resolution 6 Commission report to expand, modernize, and incentivized recruitment and retention efforts.