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Sharp Decline In Volunteer Firefighters Inspires Legislation To Court New Ones

Gene J. Puskar
AP Photo
The Braddock Volunteer Fire Department responds Thursday morning, Nov. 18, 2004, to a spill of molten steel at U.S. Steel's Edgar Thompson Mill in Braddock, Pa.

In the 1970s, Pennsylvania had 300,000 volunteer firefighters, according to the State Fire Commissioner. That number has dropped to about 50,000, leaving some volunteer stations stretched thin and communities underserved.

New legislation penned by state Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-Shaler) aims to draw more people into the service by creating a firefighter pilot program at three community colleges. They would work with nearby secondary schools to provide fire training to students.

"Recruitment continues to be the biggest issue that volunteer fire companies face," Vulakovich said. "We want to catch them early."

If the bill passes, community colleges can apply to be one of the three providing fire training. One will be chosen in Western Pa., Central Pa. and Eastern Pa. The pilot's success will be gauged after three years.

The measure is bipartisan and co-signed by state Sen. Jay Costa (D-Forest Hills). 

Vulakovich is aiming to fund the pilot program with the state's fireworks tax that was implemented in October, which allows Pennsylvanians to purchase fireworks within state lines with a 12 percent tax. According to Vulakovich, those funds are required to go toward the state's emergency services programs.

"Those are the dollars we want to use to enhance recruitment and retention for volunteer firefighters, and also help them with their training costs," he said.

The legislation has been referred to the Senate Education Committee. If it passes, it will go to the Senate.

What's at stake and candidate profiles for statewide races and competitive primaries in Allegheny County.