Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale appealed to state legislators Thursday to reform laws regarding the state's volunteer fire departments.
In a live stream media broadcast, DePasquale specifically appealed to the state Legislature to reform laws regarding volunteer fire department funding so companies with both paid and volunteer firefighters can get sufficient support.
The auditor general said every Pennsylvanian should be interested in “making sure that our brave firefighters have the resources they need to save lives and protect property and keep themselves safe.”
According to DePasquale, accomplishing these goals is difficult under current funding policies.
“The vast majority of firefighters in Pennsylvania are volunteers,” DePasquale said. “Pennsylvania has the largest number of volunteer fire companies in the United States.”
He added firefighters have a job that is dangerous and “enormously expensive.” He estimated basic gear costs about $3,000, with breathing apparatus at about $5,000 and trucks costing $500,000 each.
Role of VFRAs
DePasquale said his department was assigned to distribute tens of millions of dollars in state aid to Volunteer Fire Relief Associations, otherwise known as VFRAs. In 2018, the auditor general's office awarded $55.1 million to VFRAs.
VFRAs help volunteer fire companies fund equipment, training, insurance and death benefits, but must remain legally separate from those same fire companies. Additionally, VFRAs strictly fund volunteer companies.
Part of the challenge facing Pennsylvania is that many companies use a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters. Thus, many VFRAs struggle to disburse money within the confines of the law, which also prohibits technology purchases such as drones.
Law updates needed
Since the law that created VFRAs was established in 1968, it's been updated just twice.
“The law has not kept pace with changing times,” DePasquale argued. “(It) puts too many restrictions on how relief associations can spend the state aid they receive.”
DePasquale said many VFRAs are “flush with cash,” while the departments they support can't make ends meet, adding how his office identified 59 VFRAs with fund balances of $1 million or more in 2018.
On the other hand, an estimated 35,000 volunteer firefighters currently serve Pennsylvania communities. But when VFRAs developed in the 1960s and 1970s, some 300,000 volunteer firefighters served across the state.
“I'm urging the General Assembly to update the law,” DePasquale said.
He said all departments need public support, even if associated VFRAs have cash reserves. DePasquale also publicly asked for reforms to be made to Pennsylvania's funding formula for distributing state aid. This formula has not been updated since the 1970s to reflect population and wealth shifts.
Local departments respond
“The relief money is a big part of our budget,” said Nathan Wulff, Unionville Volunteer Fire Company chief.
The Unionville company is a 100 percent volunteer organization and has 30 firefighters, according to Wulff. The department is well-stocked when it comes to equipment. While it doesn’t have access to technology like drones, Wulff believes the department isn’t lacking in that area.
“What we need is people,” Wulff said.
He’s excited about the possibility of relief funding being available for such items as recruiting advertisements.
Herman Volunteer Fire Company Chief Robert McLafferty is also looking for recruits.
With a 100 percent volunteer department of 43 firefighters, Herman VFC responds primarily to emergencies in parts of Summit, Clearfield and Winfield townships.
McLafferty stresses the point that funding is a problem as the department is located in a rural area. It averages 1.5 raffles per month just to generate its annual budget of more than $120,000.
Reforms to relief funding could make a big difference.
“I think it’s a good idea,” McLafferty said. “(But) it depends on how they conduct the reform.”
He recognized reforms will only help Herman VFC if the distribution process is changed.
In McLafferty’s experience, VFRAs create extra steps in the funding process.
“It’s a layer of bureaucracy,” McLafferty said.
He added it’s often easier to raise money than work within the purchasing restrictions placed on VFRA funds.
One thing Herman VFC is looking into is technology to fill a shortage of manpower. Tools like drones can provide information to firefighters before they go into a fire and supply additional resources while they’re in one.
“We have to look at technology because the resources pool is (low),” McLafferty said.
Herman VFC may be able to explore such alternatives if VFRA legislation is changed.
“Our volunteer firefighters perform vital services,” DePasquale said during the live stream. “They need legislators to take action.”
Wulff is eager for things to progress.
“I’d be curious to see (where) the rules end up,” Wulff said.