HARRISBURG — Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted unanimously this week to approve a bill that could give a major boost to Commonwealth fire and emergency medical services.
House Bill 1178, sponsored by State Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Berks, would allow individual fire and EMS companies involved in a merger to continue to receive grants in perpetuity through the Fire Grants Program and EMS Grant of Pennsylvania.
The measure proposes to remove a current rule that eliminates individual awards for each company in a merger after 10 years, after which the merged collective entity would receive a single grant.
With the approval of the House, the bill went to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness for consideration. The Senate has just seven sitting days – six in October, one in November – remaining in the current legislative session. The bill would expire and be reintroduced next year if not passed.
State Representative Lynda Culver, R-Northumberland/Snyder, and State Representative Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence, added amendments that broadened the scope of the bill.
Culver’s amendment added language to designate portions of Pennsylvania’s fireworks tax for financial and educational assistance to first responders: scholarships for reimbursement of EMS training, grants in municipal fire department capital for facility maintenance, capital grants for emergency service training centers and online trainer and firefighter training reimbursement.
The bill specifically seeks to set out the conditions for spending the funds provided by the recently amended Fireworks Tax Law, Law 74 of 2022, which now directs all revenue from the 12% fireworks tax to fireworks sales for fire support and EMS.
“The dwindling number of emergency responders poses a real threat to public safety and cannot be ignored,” Culver said. “We continue to ask more of these talented volunteers while providing them with less and that must change.”
Pennsylvania is expected to collect about $14.8 million annually in fireworks taxes and licensing fees, according to a tax memo for the bill that became Law 74 earlier this summer. Under the old terms, $2 million would go to emergency services and the rest to the general fund.
The distribution of fireworks tax revenue is distributed as follows, according to a tax memo on Bill 1178:
• $1.5 million to the EMS grant program;
• $1 million for the Fire Service and EMS Higher Education and Trade School Assistance Program;
• $1 million for the EMS Basic Education Workforce Development Grant Program;
• $500,000 for the capital grant program for firefighters and EMS training centres;
• $500,000 for the Career Fire Department Capital Grant Program;
• $250,000 for a public interest campaign on the danger of fireworks;
• $250,000 for the online firefighter training program.
The remaining funds should be split equally between the EMS grant program and the Fire Company grant program.
Sainato’s proposed amendment seeks to establish the Active Volunteer Tuition and Loan Assistance Program to help emergency services recruit and retain volunteer first responders.
The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency would administer the program. Volunteers would be eligible on a first-come, first-served basis each school year to receive $1,000 for those studying full-time or $500 for part-time students.
To receive the funds, volunteers must serve at least one year before enrolling in a college program and continue active service for at least five years after graduation. A mandatory promissory note would require them to repay the financing if they failed to meet the requirements.
“A Senate Committee report showing that the number of Pennsylvania volunteer first responders has declined by nearly 90% – from around 300,000 in the 1970s to as few as 38,000 in 2018 – has been a wake-up call. indicating that we need common sense bipartisan solutions to attract young people. back to volunteer jobs in public safety,” Sainato said. “Helping pay for their public school tuition in exchange for service would be an effective recruitment tool that would ensure a continuous supply of volunteers.