Bill to boost volunteer firefighting enrollment advancing through Pa. Senate

The (Sunbury) Daily Item/File Photo

Firefighters work to extinguish a house fire near Danville, Montour County, Pa., in 2018.

HARRISBURG — A pilot program designed to attract and train high school students interested in becoming volunteer firefighters is advancing through the Pennsylvania Senate.

Pennsylvania’s need for volunteers and professionals throughout emergency services is well-documented. When it comes to firefighting, the commonwealth saw its count of volunteers drop from an estimated 300,000 in 1976 to about 38,000 in 2018, according to a joint legislative report for Pennsylvania’s General Assembly.

Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Crawford/Lawrence/Mercer, introduced Senate Bill 114 this month. It proposes to establish the Secondary Education Fire Training Pilot Program.

If moved into law in its current form, three community colleges or state-system universities would offer firefighting instruction to high-schoolers toward becoming certified firefighters. The institutions would apply for consideration and would ultimately be chosen by the state fire commissioner.

Participating students must be at least 16 years old to qualify and attend schools, public or non-public, partnering with higher education institutions. The aim is to have one location in each of the eastern, central and western regions.

“Pennsylvania is facing a severe shortage of volunteer firefighters, with the current number of volunteers down to less than 15% of the number of volunteers in the 1970s. By encouraging school districts to partner with institutions of higher education, we can help recruit and retain firefighters at a time when first responders are desperately needed,” Brooks wrote in a legislative memo seeking cosponsor support.

The measure quickly advanced out of the Education Committee this week and twice received consideration on the Senate floor before being referred to the Appropriations Committee, a pathway to a third and final consideration before likely moving onto the state House. The Senate reconvenes Tuesday.

A prior version of the bill also advanced out of the Senate in April 2021 and made progress in the House but eventually stalled without a final vote in the 2021-22 session. Brooks noted in remarks at an Education Committee meeting this week that an earlier version met a similar fate in the 2019-20 session.

Jerry Ozog, executive director, Pennsylvania Fire & Emergency Services Institute, said he supports the initiative. Many of the students will likely move on to other careers, he said, but they can always serve as volunteers in their communities.

“One thing that EMS (emergency medical services) and fire could provide is life experience and meaningful work that makes an impact in the community. You get to see the results of the work,” Ozog said.

Brooks’ bill would direct a combined $450,000 to be split evenly among the three institutions offering firefighting training. A non-lapsing, restricted Fire Training Fund would be established with the state treasury. The state fire commissioner could solicit tax-exempt donations for the fund.

The pilot program would begin as soon as Jan. 1, 2024, and continue for four years. The Legislative Budget and Finance Committee would be tasked within the final six months of the pilot program to survey municipal fire departments in each program area to determine potential impact on increasing volunteer registration and also make recommendations.

The colleges or universities offering the training could also incorporate training in EMS at their own discretion. A separate, similar four-year pilot program for EMS was enacted as part of Act 104 of 2022.

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