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Penn. Bill Aims to Forgive Students Loans for Volunteer First Responders

Tribune-Review, Greensburg, Pa.

A year after a lengthy report documented growing holes in Pennsylvania’s network of volunteer firefighters, advocates hope a package of bills designed to help recruitment and retention gains traction in Harrisburg this fall.

Citing SR 6, a report that found the number of active volunteer firefighters had declined from more than 300,000 five decades ago to 38,000 today, emergency service leaders say it’s past time for the state to address the crisis.

“It’s nerve wracking when you’re the fire chief and the alarm goes off. If there is a police call, you know someone is coming. If it’s a fire alarm, you wait and sometimes you have to rely on mutual aid agreements with other departments,” West Deer Fire Chief Josh Wiegand said.

Wiegand, a career EMT who also consults as an EMS grant writer, sat on the commission that produced last year’s SR 6 report.

He hopes a recent unanimous committee vote to move a measure to provide volunteer first responders with up to $16,000 in college debt forgiveness to a full state House vote signals that lawmakers are getting the message.

Similar measures have been introduced repeatedly since 2007, only to stall at various points in the process.

This year’s version calls for the state to provide college debt forgiveness for those in the volunteer fire service after four years of active service. Lawmakers would have to allocate funding for the program each year.

State Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence County, sponsored the bill. He sat on the SR 6 Commission along with Wiegand and about three dozen other state and local officials and emergency responders. He said the state has ignored the problem for far too long.

“The consequences are already being felt, as some departments have been forced to reduce services or shut down, while others have had to hire additional paid staff. It’s a problem that threatens to undermine public safety, and surely one that will impact taxpayers if we don’t come up with viable solutions now,” Sainato said. “My bill would address the problem with an effective recruitment tool that would provide a real-life incentive to young Pennsylvanians struggling with student loan debt.”

The bill is just one among about two dozen that would provide volunteer fire fighters with everything from Worker’s Compensation for PTSD to student debt forgiveness, tax credits for both volunteers and their employers as well as additional grants to underwrite operations.

First responders say they need additional enticements to draw new volunteers into the thinning ranks of departments that have served their communities for decades.

Anthony Kovcic, Hempfield’s director of emergency services, said he’d welcome any help the state is willing to provide. A Johnstown firefighter for 29 years and chief for 13 before coming to Hempfield, he’s watched the volunteer service shrink and struggle to meet community needs.

“I think we’ve got to do something,” he said. “It’s not a situation … that may become an issue. It is an issue. We need to get some action to try to reverse the situation,” he said.

Jerry Ozog, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute, said volunteers provide critical services and savings of millions of dollars across the state. Indeed, more than 90% of the state’s 2,400-plus fire companies are volunteer.

“The challenge we are facing as Pennsylvania demographics are rapidly changing and the state is getting older is recruiting younger volunteers,” Ozog said.

He said the state’s success with a new National Guard program that provided college tuition to Guard members and or their dependents when members signed up for an additional six years, suggests student debt forgiveness could likewise be attractive.

Tom Bell, fire chief in Greensburg, said he’s not sure college debt forgiveness alone will make much difference. He said the Edward Hutchinson Volunteer Firefighter Scholars has been available for years to volunteers who want to continue their education at the Westmoreland County Community College.

“To be honest, I’m not 100 percent sure that we have any that have used that. To look at the state paying (student loan forgiveness), it could be an attractive point. It might be attractive to some of the kids going to college,” he said.

New Kensington Fire Chief Ed Saliba, who has watched his roster shrink from 145 to about 80 volunteers over the last three decades, said helping young people struggling with college debt could pay triple dividends for communities, fire companies and youngsters struggling to make their way in the world and pay their student debts.

“New Kensington is an older community, and it’s a community where money is tough and jobs are scarce. Anything that could help young people financially, if it would keep them in the city and help them get an education and join the fire department, it would be like reinvesting in them and their community,” Saliba said.

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