As the number of volunteer firefighters and first responders continue to decline, fire departments need the flexibility to spend state financial aid in different ways.

Volunteer fire department operations have changed radically since the 1970s, when there were approximately 300,000 volunteers in the ranks across the state. Today, about 38,000 volunteers serve the 2,462 fire departments in Pennsylvania.

We therefore agree with state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who noted last week that state law should be modified to allow fire departments more flexibility in spending financial aid funds they receive from the state, including using some of the money to add paid first responders to complement the efforts of the volunteers.

Current state law tightly restricts how volunteer firefighters’ relief associations may spend the state aid, generated by a 2 percent tax collected on fire insurance premiums paid by residents to out-of-state insurance companies.

As a result, some fire departments have accumulated large reserve accounts that they may be unable to spend because of restrictions embedded in current state law, DePasquale said.

“At the same time, relief associations statewide are having difficulty recruiting new volunteers and struggling to provide support to their affiliated fire departments,” he said.

The state aid, governed by Act 118 of 2010, is intended to solely benefit volunteer firefighters and is targeted toward equipment and training for volunteers. Current law restricts fire departments from using any of the state aid for paid personnel, and there are restrictions on the kinds of equipment that can be purchased with the state funds.

As a result, audits show that nearly 60 fire associations have amassed more than $1 million in reserve funds.

“If you ask any one of these associations how they could use this money to help recruit, equip or protect volunteer firefighters, they’d give you a list a mile long,” DePasquale said at a media briefing on the issue. “But, then they would tell you they are not allowed because the law is so narrow that it’s hurting the firefighters. Clearly, the law must change.”

Changes in state law could potentially benefit the increasing number of fire departments, including the William Cameron Engine Company in Lewisburg, that are hiring paid personnel to assist volunteers.

Harrisburg Fire Chief Brian Enterline notes that more flexibility is needed for equipment purchases. He suggests that the state fire commissioner or a panel of fire chiefs be tasked with maintaining the list of equipment approved for purchase under the state aid program.

The volunteers who work hard to maintain the staffing and equipment necessary to protect all of us are pointing to things that can help their mission. State lawmakers should be listening and taking swift legislative action to address their concerns.

NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher and top newsroom executives. Today’s was written by Digital Editor Dave Hilliard.

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