Volunteers have been the backbone of Pennsylvania’s fire departments ever since Benjamin Franklin founded the very first volunteer company in 1736 in Philadelphia. Today, 90.3 percent of Commonwealth fire departments are volunteer, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. But this historical structure is crumbling as fire companies and communities struggle to recruit and retain a sufficient number of volunteers. Where once there were 300,000 volunteer firefighters in the 1970s, there now are about 38,000. The increased burden on fewer volunteers to provide services places a significant burden on municipalities to provide emergency services.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly formed a commission to identify critical problems and issue recommendations, and released its findings in November in its Senate Resolution 6 (“SR6”) report. Unfortunately, none of the recommendations fully address the most important challenge facing municipalities—how to provide monetary recruitment incentives while avoiding an employment relationship. As the Emmaus case taught us, municipalities must carefully measure how much control they exert over their volunteer departments or else risk a ruling that these volunteers are your employees.
The SR6 report, which can be found in its entirety at http://pehsc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/SR-6-REPORT-FINAL.pdf, contains 27 recommendations. Some seek to build on existing legislation, such as expanding existing tax credits and creating incentives for employers to allow volunteers to attend training during work hours. However, the majority of proposals must be implemented at the state level. Some of the more notable proposals that could aid in recruitment or ease the burden of municipalities include:
• Expand, modernize, and incentivize recruitment and retention efforts. The report proposes creating school and college programs to spark interest and to offer credit for community service, as well as enlisting local colleges to create a competitive program to develop marketing tools.
• Use financial and non-financial incentives to recruit and retain first responders. Proposals include creating a statewide training program, expanding tax credits, and offering free tuition for active first responders.
• Fund basic fire & EMS training at Commonwealth level. This would also include developing an online training course.
• Reassess the fireworks law adopted in 2017 that allows Pennsylvania residents to purchase consumer grade fireworks. Or, use the tax revenue from the sales to reinstate the reimbursement for public safety training courses at community colleges that kept these courses low cost or free.
• Protect and restore funding for Volunteer Loan Assistance Program, and open eligibility to all fire service providers.
One proposal included setting the professional certification standard as the minimum training standard for all firefighters. The standard would emulate the National Fire Protection Association’s Firefighter Certification I requirements, which are currently voluntary unless incorporated into a collective bargaining agreement at a paid department. Although this standardization seeks to avoid injuries and potentially deaths of civilians due to inadequate training, the high cost and potentially prohibitive requirements could outweigh the actual risk of danger.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, structure fires have been trending downward the past 40 years because of sprinkler systems and fire detectors. The NFPA’s data show that 2016 had the lowest number of fires since 1977. And according to FEMA’s National Fire Incident Reporting System, in 2016, fire calls amounted to only 8.9% of total incidents in Pennsylvania. EMS calls topped the list at 53.9%, followed by “good intent” calls, 13.1%, and false alarms, 10.4%.
Advocates for paid firefighters, which includes the IAFF, are using this volunteer recruitment challenge as an opportunity to expand paid fire employment, and with it, unionization. But there is a high cost to pay for professional firefighters as advocates push expensive and standards that are unrealistic for today’s cash-strapped municipalities. In the meantime, for municipalities wanting to avoid a paid fire department, they must be very careful in providing any benefits directly to volunteers or else risk a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board ruling that these volunteers are your employees.