Last January, I was asked to serve as Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee. This important Committee, which dovetails off of my 23-year career in law enforcement as a US Marshal, deals directly with military, veterans, fire, EMS, and emergency management issues. Throughout this past year we have been very diligent in advancing initiatives to assist our veterans and Guard members and to improve fire and emergency services in Pennsylvania, and I am pleased to provide an update on the work the Committee has been doing.
At the onset of 2019, we confirmed Major General Anthony Carrelli to serve as Adjutant General for a second term. Working with the General and Governor Wolf, we passed the GI Bill for Families, which allows members of the National Guard to receive a free 5-year college education for their spouse or child if the Guard member re-enlists for another 6-year term. It is critical that we retain the experience of our more senior Guard members and this incentive will, in turn, support our Guard families, who have had to sacrifice when the Guard member deploys.
Since summer, as Chairman of the Committee, I have held six roundtable discussions across the Commonwealth on the issue of Veterans Suicide. Each day, 22 veterans commit suicide nationally – a statistic that is a call to action for us all to help our veterans navigate life after service. As a result of the roundtable discussions, I have introduced Senate Bill 976, which would codify Veterans Courts into state law and provide additional ways to help our veterans when a county does not have a Veterans Court. These problem-solving courts assist Veterans who find themselves in trouble with the law as a result of service-related issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). We will also be working to increase the number of Veterans Service Units in our state and county prisons, and together with the Adjutant General we aim to reduce the stigma of mental health and encourage Guard members to access mental health services without the fear of jeopardizing their current role in the Guard.
Additional veteran-related legislation that has passed out of the Committee includes Senate Bill 92, which would provide veterans, 50% or more disabled, with a property tax reduction commensurate with the rating of their disability. We have also advanced Senate Bill 276 to increase the amount veterans receive under the Blind & Amputee and Paralyzed Veterans Pension Programs, Senate Bill 957 calling for the creation of a Veterans Business Logo, and House Bill 1050 to guarantee the continuance of in-state tuition for students in military families reassigned outside of the Commonwealth after the student has been accepted into public college or university in Pennsylvania. All of these bills are currently awaiting further action within the Senate.
With regard to fire and emergency services, one of my first legislative initiatives as Chairman was to sponsor Senate Bill 127, which was signed into law as Act 17 of 2019. This legislation reauthorized our 9-1-1 law until January 2024. This is important to allow the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) to continue moving toward “Next Generation 9-1-1,” which will ensure that no matter what type of device or format an individual uses during an emergency, such as a text message from a cell phone, the 9-1-1 operator will be able to handle it.
Meanwhile, we continue to advance additional legislation to assist our fire companies and EMS providers including several bills that received consideration in the Senate this week. These bills encompass a number of recommendations from the Senate Resolution 6 Fire & EMS Commission and make significant changes to the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program (VLAP) and the Fire Relief Program.
Senate Bill 908 increases loan amounts for VLAP and moves administration of the Fire Relief Program from the Auditor General to the State Fire Commissioner, while Senate Bill 447 would allow fire companies to use Fire Relief funds for length of service awards, and Senate Bill 932 would allow fire companies with a mix of paid and volunteer firefighters to be eligible for Fire Relief funds.
Further, Senate Bill 910 extends the Fire & EMS Grant Program, which is set to expire this June, to June 2024, Senate Bill 987 restructures the Fire Commissioner’s Office so that the Commissioner reports directly to the Governor, and Senate Bill 996 would allow the Department of Health to provide waivers to EMS providers regarding staffing ambulances.
This past year was very productive for the Committee, and I look forward to continuing this good work for the Commonwealth’s military, veterans, and fire & emergency service providers throughout 2020.