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A bill in Pennsylvania would grant qualifying first responders up to $16,000 in tuition reimbursement after four consecutive years of service.
Faced with a growing shortage of volunteer firefighters, legislators in Pennsylvania are hoping to enhance recruitment and retention by offering student loan forgiveness to qualifying first responders.
The measure, introduced at the end of August, would grant up to $16,000 in loan forgiveness to volunteers with fire departments, rescue companies or emergency medical services agencies. Money would be available in increments over four years of consecutive service. If the proposal becomes law, it would still rely on lawmakers appropriating an unspecified amount of funding each year to pay for the program.
The legislation, one of a handful of bills designed to attract new recruits to the state’s network of volunteer first responders, comes a year after a bipartisan commission examined the shortage and issued multiple recommendations to address the problem. Their report noted that the state’s stable of volunteer firefighters had declined from more than 300,000 in the 1970s to roughly 38,000 in 2018. Those numbers “are sobering,” said state Rep. Chris Sainato, who sponsored the loan forgiveness bill.
“Retaining and recruiting volunteer emergency responders are among the commonwealth’s greatest challenges today,” he said in a statement. “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.”
Agencies are particularly struggling to recruit young volunteers, which Sainato said means the problem is likely to get worse in the future as older volunteers age out of active duty. Tuition reimbursement could be a particularly “effective recruitment tool that would provide a real-life incentive to young Pennsylvanians struggling with student loan debt,” he said.
Pennsylvania has about 1,800 all-volunteer fire departments (some very small, others large), compared to 22 paid departments and 52 that are a combination of professionals and volunteers, according to the nonprofit Pennsylvania Fire & Emergency Services Institute.
Heavily populated urban areas are typically covered by paid departments, but rural and suburban areas rely heavily on volunteers—so effective recruitment and retention is vital for public safety, said Jerry Ozog, the organization’s executive director.
“These are critical public safety resources throughout our communities in Pennsylvania,” he said. “Tuition reimbursement is a valid tool to help recruitment. If you tie that into the student loan debt crisis, maybe this would entice a student that has an interest in public service.”
The program would easily tie into existing recruitment efforts, said Tina Cook, a member of Munhall Volunteer Fire Company No. 4 in Allegheny County. Cook works in the training division, which includes outreach to potential volunteers.
“As an instructor, I teach around the Commonwealth and talk about the need for training any chance I get, and with anyone who will listen,” she told the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee last month. “I spend a lot of time speaking with firefighters and officers about the different training tracks and opportunities available, as well as certification. There is a lot of interest, they are just looking for the support. The tuition assistance would be a great chance to help with both recruitment and retention and I urge you to consider.”
The committee unanimously passed the legislation, which heads next to the full House for a vote. Ozog is optimistic it will fare well, though he cautioned that it’s not a comprehensive solution to the issues facing the state’s volunteer force.
“It’s not just a state responsibility—there’s a responsibility at the county level and the municipal level, and at the local fire company level,” he said. “We’re all working together toward the same mission. There’s not one solution that’s going to solve the problem.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.