HARRISBURG — Today, the Senate of Pennsylvania unanimously passed a piece of legislation in response to the growing shortage of volunteer first responders. Senate Bill 299 as introduced by Senator Lisa Baker (R-20) and Senator Sean Wiley (D-49) gives municipalities the authority to reduce or waive their local earned income tax for volunteer firefighters and volunteers at nonprofit emergency medical service agencies.
“Many Pennsylvanians do not realize that 96 percent of our firefighters are not paid for jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to fight a fire or run to the scene of an accident,” Baker said. “Giving firefighters and EMTs a small break on their local taxes is a simple benefit that will compensate them in some small measure for their priceless life-saving work.”
“No one has to look very far to see the broad-reaching impact of the shortage of first responders right here in Erie County,” said Wiley. “With over 30 departments facing record low ranks, public safety in the greater Erie community is quickly being jeopardized with departments on the brink of closure.”
The decrease is attributed largely to families’ growing need for multiple incomes reducing time available to volunteer, the demands of incessant fundraising and the stagnant economy.
Under the legislation, municipalities would have the authority to set the amount of the tax credit and the guidelines of the program, including specifying the number of calls to which a volunteer must answer and the level of training they must have.
Jim Carstater, Law & Legislation Chair of the Erie County Firefighters Association, offered, “The Erie County Firefighters Association has supported this bill since introduction as it provides another tool for recruiting and retaining essential volunteer public safety providers. Previous attempts in two prior sessions have fallen short and we are hopeful that the third time will be the charm for passage.”
Senate Bill 299 is expected to be part of a larger package as the General Assembly continues to address recruitment and retention of first responders across the Commonwealth. The idea for the legislation was bolstered by a joint hearing on firefighter and EMT retention and recruitment held in 2013 by the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, which Baker chaired for seven years, and the Majority Policy Committee. That led to a series of meetings held by a workgroup focusing on the challenges facing firefighting and some suggestions to bolster the ranks of the volunteers.
“This bill is one step in the right direction of an ongoing dialogue,” said Wiley. “Without meaningful intervention, I fear there may very soon come a day when the alarm sounds and no one is there to answer the call.”
Baker agreed by stating, “Although the tax credit program would be optional for local governments, we hope every municipality will see the virtue of keeping and attracting its volunteer firefighters. When those first flames begin, every second counts.”
Senate Bill 299 will now be considered by the House of Representatives.
To see Sen. Baker’s floor remarks on the bill: https://pasen.wistia.com/medias/rl66rxhajz
Andrew M. Seder