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‘Archaic’ Laws Are Preventing Pennsylvania Firefighters From Accessing Millions In State Aid

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
Bunker gear hangs in the garage of the fire house in Mt. Lebanon. The township has a combination fire house -- a mix of volunteer and career firefighters.

Firefighting is a dangerous job — it’s also an enormously expensive one. 

Individual gear, breathing apparatuses and even the tires for a fire truck can cost thousands of dollars. Something as big as a new fire engine could easily cost half-a-million dollars. 

Those kinds of expenses can be difficult to swing for departments — especially the volunteer departments that make up the vast majority of fire services in Pennsylvania. 

And antiquated, out-of-date laws are making it even more difficult for fire departments to access or properly spend state funds, says Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

At a press conference Thursday, DePasquale urged lawmakers to update these laws. 

In addition to fire departments, Pennsylvania has volunteer firefighters' relief associations, which dole out money to departments for insurance, death benefits and other needs. By law, these associations are separate from fire departments and keep separate books, as well as abide by different financial guidelines. 

But these laws, first created in 1968, have only been updated twice since then.

“The law has not kept pace with changing times, and in my view, puts too many restrictions on how relief associations can spend the state aid they receive,” DePasquale said. 

Last year, DePasquale’s office handed out $55 million to firefighter relief associations. But restrictions make it difficult for some departments to access money they need. For instance, many departments are what’s called a combination house — a mix of volunteers and career firefighters, that’s the case locally in Mt. Lebanon. However, relief associations can only give money to volunteer firefighters, even if they’re going to the same calls as paid ones. 

“This may leave a relief association flush with cash, at the same time the fire department it supports is struggling even to make ends meet,” DePasquale said. “You think, ‘How could that be possible?’”

In extreme cases, DePasquale said, a relief association may have millions of dollars in the bank, but because of restrictions in the law, the fire department can’t spend that money on the equipment they need. 

“[Firefighters are] giving up their Saturdays to sell chicken dinners to basically try to make sure that they’re protecting their communities,” DePasquale said. 

This is especially critical at a time when the number of volunteer firefighters has dramatically declined. Pennsylvania has just 38,000 volunteer firefighters, which is one-tenth of what it was four decades ago

With fewer young people joining departments for the social club aspect, some departments have to find new ways to compensate people, whether through a combination of paid positions, more desirable firehouses or even firehouse swag

Harrisburg fire chief Brian Enterline called the current laws “archaic,” adding that in the last 40 years, firefighters’ jobs have not gotten easier, nor have workloads gotten lighter. And the state relief association money can’t be used to entice potential paid firefighters. 

The laws also don’t account for purchasing updated equipment, such as drones.

“They are a very necessary emergency service component, which is being deployed across the country, but here in Pennsylvania,” Enterline said, departments can’t buy drones because, “it’s not laid out in the letter of the law.”