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Potential $30M boost for fire, EMS may not be enough

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(The Center Square) — Gov. Josh Shapiro has proposed another $30 million to boost fire companies and emergency medical services, but legislators are concerned about how state leaders want to divvy up the money.

During a Wednesday House hearing of the Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, Deputy State Fire Commissioner J.C. Tedorski laid out how the Office of State Fire Commissioner wants to spend the potential funding.

Half the money would go to increase the base amount available to 2,400 fire and EMS companies that apply for grant funding; $7.8 million (26%) would go as grants to counties to study regionalization attempts and recruitment/retention efforts; $6 million (20%) would go to a separate program for quick-response service for EMS groups licensed by the Department of Health.

The rest, $1.2 million, would go for specialty emergency service teams.

EMS funding has been a recurring problem statewide. Labor shortages, higher costs, and a lack of steady funding have pushed some companies to shut down and officials have warned of an impending crisis.

After Tedorski explained the plan, legislators reiterated those problems.

“I’m a little worried that $6 million isn’t enough. That’s about $12,500 roughly per squad,” Rep. Paul Takac, D-State College, said. “If you look at the $7.8 million for the regionalization effort — we have 67 counties, that’s $116,000 for each of those.”

The financial troubles have pushed some companies to ask for local levies to keep ambulance crews operating. Many townships and communities across Pennsylvania don’t have a dedicated funding stream for EMS services.

“Our rural EMS agencies really do need a lot of help,” Takac said. “When you travel on our interstates or go to camps or to state parks, you do not bring your level of fire and EMS coverage with you from your home. You are reliant on the services that are available locally.”

Regionalization has been pushed as a potential solution to budget holes and worker shortages, but some legislators argued not every area is ready for regionalization. Others have more pressing needs before restructuring.

“I have talked to EMS after EMS and I’m hearing they can’t hire,” Rep. Jim Haddock, D-Hughestown, said.

The Office of State Fire Commissioner is willing to discuss the funding allotments, Tedorski said, but their current proposal focuses more on funding fire companies. Both fire and EMS have warned legislators of their financial problems.

“The $20,000 as a base payment to our local firefighters is not enough,” Rep. Dane Watro, R-Hazleton, said. “I meet with them regularly on a weekly basis and they’re struggling, they’re hurting. This weekend they’re having their annual bazaar — flipping potato cakes, making pierogies — just trying to raise money.”

On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously passed a bill that renews the grant program. It awaits consideration in the House.

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