Volunteer fire and rescue companies are indispensable to public safety statewide. Of nearly 2,500 fire companies statewide, about 90 percent are volunteer companies, according to state statistics. Without them, the cost of some of the most important public services would increase exponentially.
But changes in demographics, employment, time commitments, training and other obligations imposed on volunteers vastly have reduced the ranks of volunteer first responders. From a peak of about 300,000 volunteers in the 1970s, volunteer companies statewide now have about 37,000 active members.
It makes sense, then, for the state Legislature to create incentives to help retain volunteers and recruit new ones. The Senate should pass, and Gov. Tom Wolf should sign, a series of bills that have been passed by the House to help maintain the viability of volunteer fire and rescue companies — with one crucial exception.
Bills that should pass would:
. Authorize student loan forgiveness of up to $16,000 for current or new volunteers.
. Authorize school districts to offer property tax credits to volunteers.
. Allow use of firefighters' relief association grants for deferred benefit programs.
. Encourage mergers by eliminating realty transfer taxes on property transfers.
. Increase amounts under a state loan program that helps volunteer companies modernize facilities and purchase equipment.
While proposing those significant increases in public aid to volunteer companies, however, the House also would exempt those companies from most provisions of the state Right-to-Know-Law.
In addition to state fund loan and grant programs for volunteer companies, local governments statewide already contribute millions of dollars to volunteer companies — money for which those companies must be accountable through public disclosure. The measure also would deny public access to crucial information such as response times.
Under the state Right to Know Law, as upheld by the state Supreme Court in a case brought by The Times-Tribune, a Times-Sharmrock newspaper, against the Lackawanna County Stadium Authority, any entity doing work that a government otherwise would do itself, is subject to the same disclosure requirements as the government.
Exempting volunteer companies from disclosure obligations does not provide an incentive for retention or recruiting. It just denies Pennsylvania residents of information to which they are entitled. The Senate should reject, or Gov. Tom Wolf should veto, the exemption from the Right-to-Know Law.
Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice