Could Lawmakers’ Tuition Reimbursement Plan Help Our Local Fire Companies?

| September 30, 2019

VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT) – A bill intended to help retain and recruit volunteer emergency responders is headed to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, but local reactions to the real-world effects of the bill seem to be mixed.

(PHOTO: Clintonville Volunteer Fire Department members.)

House Bill 1786, which is intended to help retain and recruit volunteer emergency responders by offering student loan forgiveness after four years of service, was unanimously approved by the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee recently.

The bill would establish The First Responder Loan Forgiveness Program, which would forgive up to $16,000.00 in loans to indebted college graduates after they have served four years with an emergency medical services agency, a volunteer fire company, or a volunteer rescue company.

While this may sound like a major perk to many people, the reactions in local fire companies vary widely.

Grant Rae, Assistant Chief for Clintonville Volunteer Fire Department, told that he has mixed feelings on the bill.

“I don’t know that it’s going to make that much of a difference.

“And honestly, if that’s what it takes to get people to volunteer, that’s pretty sad. If people wanted to volunteer, they’d already be out there volunteering.”

Wes Lander, Chief of Strattanville Volunteer Fire Company, echoed some of the same sentiments.

“I don’t think it will be really beneficial for rural towns,” Lander said.

“Around here, most of the students seem to be from outside of the area and no one sticks around. As soon as they graduate, they leave. Most of us (in the fire company) are hometown guys. We graduated high school, didn’t go to college and have our roots set now.”

Chief David Smith, of the Sigel Volunteer Fire Department, is a little more optimistic.

“This might entice younger people or give them more of an opportunity to be a member and go to college and know they have that help paying for their schooling,” Smith said.

“I think it would give some kids more of an opportunity to go to school, knowing that if they’re a member for four years, it’ll help pay for it. I’d say that could definitely help.”

Whether or not the measure may entice more people to volunteer is yet to be seen, but one thing is for certain: it could definitely help some of the current volunteers.

Rae believed there might be a few members in Clintonville that the bill would help.

Lander said that the bill would help at least one current volunteer from his department who he knows is still paying for college.

Smith agreed with Rae and Lander that the bill would help some of the current members.

“We have some just starting into college and some younger members planning to go to college in the future, so it would definitely be beneficial for them,” Smith explained.

Rep. Chris Sainato (D-Lawrence), who sponsored the bill, noted that retention and recruitment are both major challenges for volunteer fire companies in Pennsylvania.

“The numbers are sobering,” Sainato said.

“Last year, the results of a state report commissioned to study the problem found that the number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania declined from about 300,000 in the 1970’s to no more than 38,000 in 2018. Compounding the problem, agencies are struggling the most to recruit younger members, which means that the numbers will only continue to decline in the years ahead.

“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. 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.”

For local departments struggling with membership, anything that could increase recruitment would be a boon.

“Anything is worth a try, and we’ve got to do something,” Smith said.

The bill is now headed to the House chamber for consideration and a vote.

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