Firefighting is an expensive proposition, and in Pennsylvania the number of volunteer firefighters is down dramatically from just a few decades ago.
At the same time, dozens of entities known as Volunteer Firefighter Relief Associations are swimming in millions of dollars in state aid while the very departments they’re supposed to support are struggling to get by, according to Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
For the most part, DePasquale said at a news conference Thursday, the problem isn’t that the relief associations are hoarding money or spending it inappropriately – although that does happen. The bigger problem, he said, is that the legislation that created the relief associations so narrowly drew their mandate that they struggle to find legal, permissible ways to support firefighting operations.
“Last year alone, my department awarded $55.1 million in state aid to volunteer fire relief associations across Pennsylvania,” DePasquale said. “The state law that created relief associations dates back to 1968 and has been updated only twice since then. Simply stated, the law has not kept pace with changing times and in my view puts too many restrictions on how relief associations can spend the state aid they receive.”
One of the biggest drawbacks, according to DePasquale and Harrisburg Fire Chief Brian Enterline, who was also in attendance, is a prohibition that precludes paid firefighters from making use of equipment paid for by relief associations. That becomes a problem in cases where volunteer and professional firefighters work side-by-side, and according to Enterline had taken place as recently as Wednesday night in Harrisburg.
Enterline said that some communities had grown to the point where the volunteer firefighting force could no longer sufficiently cover all their needs, but they weren’t yet big enough to support a full-time professional fire department. In such cases, they might hire some number of professionals, supplemented by the volunteers – but the professionals can’t use any of the volunteers’ equipment.
“Basic firefighting gear can cost $3,000,” DePasquale said. “A breathing apparatus can cost as much as $5,000. And the tires on the fire trucks, for example, can be tens of thousands of dollars, and a new truck will be in the range of close to a half a million dollars at times.”
According to Enterline, the number of volunteer firefighters in the state has dwindled dramatically, from more than 300,000 in the 1970s to about 35,000 today.
DePasquale called on state lawmakers to update the 1968 legislation that created the relief associations, and Enterline argued that a panel made up of fire chiefs or commissioners should be established to make decisions on an ongoing basis to determine permissible uses of relief association funds.
“We have a pot of money that sits there, and you know, as the Auditor General said, we have 59 relief associations with over a million dollars in them,” Enterline said. “That's $59 million, plus, that's sitting there that can't serve the citizens of this commonwealth, because of the archaic law that was written in 1968.”
The source of the funding for the relief associations is a 2 percent tax on casualty insurance policies purchased by Pennsylvania residents from out-of-state insurance companies. A state law in 2010 directed the Auditor General’s Office to disburse the funds.