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Report Warns Of Crisis In Pennsylvania Fire, Rescue Services

Gene J. Puskar
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.

A report released Wednesday warns that Pennsylvania's fire and rescue services face a crisis, saying the number of volunteers continues to fall amid funding needs and training challenges.

The 95-page legislative study said there were about 300,000 volunteer firefighters in the state in the 1970s, a number that's fallen to about 38,000 currently. Emergency medical services have also seen recent declines in personnel.

"I've never been one to cry wolf, never in my life, and I'm telling you, we're in a crisis right now," said Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny, who helped lead the study effort. "We've got to get a handle on this thing."

The report's 27 recommendations include simplifying regionalization, boosting state aid, setting standards for firefighter training and requiring sprinklers in new home construction.

"Resources, funds and legislative change must be committed to improve the infrastructure for public safety performance," according to the report that was commissioned last year by the Legislature. "Moreover, we must try to find a flexible system that will work within this dynamic and challenging environment called Pennsylvania."

More than 90 percent of the state's nearly 2,500 fire companies are volunteer organizations.

"As with the fire services, a mix of long-term stagnant and declining reimbursements, limited other financial support and changes to our societal view of volunteerism have negatively impacted EMS throughout the state, leading to EMS agency failures and closures," the report said. The changes have forced cuts to services and "put the ability of EMS to respond to disaster situations in serious question," it concluded.

Members of the 39-person commission that issued the report said the next step is to push lawmakers to adopt its recommendations.

"We're beyond a crisis in Pennsylvania with fire and EMS," Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner Ed Mann said after the meeting when the commission voted unanimously to release the report. He urged legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to act on it.

Recruitment and retention are the biggest challenges, said commission member Rep. Steve Barrar, R-Delaware, who also chairs the House Veterans' Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee.

Barrar said the average age of a volunteer firefighter in the state is 48. He said a college tuition incentive might help attract more young people into the system.

"In the past, firefighting used to be a generational thing," Barrar said. "You don't see that as much anymore."