Millions in Aid for Volunteer Firefighters Sits Idle Due to Arcane Law in Pennsylvania
Firefighting is a dangerous and sometimes deadly job, it’s also an enormously expensive one.
Individual gear, breathing apparatuses and even the tires for a fire truck can cost thousands of dollars. Something as big as a new fire engine could easily cost half-a-million dollars.
Those kinds of expenses can be difficult to swing for departments — especially the volunteer departments that make up the vast majority of fire services in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania’s auditor general wants to reduce restrictions on how firefighters can spend state aid, but Western Pennsylvania fire departments have mixed feelings over whether change is needed.
“The law has not kept pace with changing times and, in my view, puts too many restrictions on how relief associations can spend the state aid they receive,” Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said at a news conference Thursday.
“Some relief associations have met their operational funding needs and have accumulated significant reserves that they may be unable to spend because of the restrictions contained in state law,” DePasquale said in a release. “At the same time, relief associations statewide are having difficulty recruiting new volunteers and struggling to provide support to their affiliated fire departments.”
The release said volunteer firefighters’ relief associations receive state aid from a 2 percent state tax on fire insurance premiums that are bought by PA residents from out-of-state casualty insurance companies.
In 2018, 2,518 municipalities received $55.1 million for distribution to volunteer firefighters’ relief associations to provide training, purchase equipment and insurance, and pay for death benefits for volunteer firefighters, the release said.
“When we have an emergency, we count on firefighters to come to our aid,” DePasquale said in a release. “But the way fire companies operate is changing and the brave men and women willing to risk their lives to protect us need our help.”
The state aid money comes from a tax on fire insurance premiums provided by out-of-state companies.
Much of that cash goes unspent, according to DePasquale. There are 59 relief associations in Pennsylvania that each have more than $1 million in the bank.
DePasquale said relief associations are flush with cash because restrictions on authorized expenditures keep them from spending it all.
“I’ll bet if you ask any one of these associations how they could use this money to help recruit, equip and protect volunteer firefighters, they’d give you a list a mile long,” DePasquale said in a statement. “But, then they would tell you they are not allowed because the law is so narrow that it’s hurting firefighters.”
That’s not how Latrobe Volunteer Fire Chief John Brasile sees it.
He said the department’s relief association deliberately keeps a large reserve and has never been hindered by onerous state regulations.
“Our departments are rather large, and the reason we have that money is we buy expensive equipment from time to time,” he said.
The state has a list of hundreds of approved expenditures for relief associations.
Latrobe’s relief association had about $1.3 million in reserve as of its its most recent audit, in 2016. Most of that money has been invested so it will grow over time, Brasile said.
It regularly uses money to buy protective gear for firefighters. The reserve protects the department from large one-off expenses such as a new truck or death benefits for the families of members who have died.
“We put our money to good use, and it’s there for a reason,” he said. “We are very, very cautious on spending that money.”
However, some of DePasquale’s ideas do stand to benefit some departments in the region.
State law mandates that relief associations spend their money only to benefit volunteer firefighters — not paid staff.
DePasquale said this is an outdated rule, particularly as volunteerism has been dropping statewide.
“Something that is eligible for a volunteer should also be eligible for a paid firefighter,” he said.
That would make life easier for the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department, Chief Nick Sohyda said. His department has a mix of volunteers and paid firefighters. As a paid member, Sohyda isn’t even allowed to participate in relief association meetings.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to take money away from the volunteers to fund career guys, but I think it would be easier if there were less restrictions,” he said.
Mt. Lebanon had almost $1.2 million in reserve in its 2016 audit.
Sohyda said he hopes any reform efforts would come with a boost in funding, which recently has been dropping.
A few years ago, the Mt. Lebanon relief association got about $180,000 a year from the state. Now it’s closer to $130,000, Sohyda said.
Antiquated, out-of-date laws are making it even more difficult for fire departments to access or properly spend state funds, says Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
At a press conference Thursday, DePasquale urged lawmakers to update these laws.
In addition to fire departments, Pennsylvania has volunteer firefighters' relief associations, which dole out money to departments for insurance, death benefits and other needs. By law, these associations are separate from fire departments and keep separate books, as well as abide by different financial guidelines.
But these laws, first created in 1968, have only been updated twice since then.
“The law has not kept pace with changing times, and in my view, puts too many restrictions on how relief associations can spend the state aid they receive,” DePasquale said.