« Back to

Pennsylvania Bill Would Offer Scholarships to Emergency Responders

April 25, 2017
FROM:     Don Konkle, Executive Director, PFESI
BY:          David Hurst (The Tribune-Democrat)
RE:         Committee Considers Payments for Ambulance Services

If a local state lawmaker has his way, their dedication would allow them to receive an education of a different kind in Pennsylvania.

State Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township, announced a plan Sunday that would provide scholarships to fire, ambulance and rescue squad volunteers statewide to help cover unfunded costs to attend Pennsylvania's public colleges.

To Burns, it would serve as more than just a well-deserved thanks to those who dedicate their time to protect Pennsylvania neighborhoods.

It also would be a valuable recruiting tool local fire department leaders could use to lure new recruits into their stations at a time they are desperately needed.

"We are all aware of the serious manpower shortages facing, in particular, the volunteer departments that have served our communities so well for so long," he said. "I believe that offering Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency scholarships to volunteers is one way to think outside the box to solve this problem."

Burns outlined his plan to a crowd of firefighters from seven counties who were on a lunch break at the training school.

Under his proposed House Bill 48, high school graduates who have served at least six months with a volunteer fire or rescue organization - and maintain active membership - would be eligible for the scholarship. They also would have to enroll at a state system institution or community college within 50 miles of their home and apply for all federal and state education grants available to them, he said.

"This (money) would help pay for whatever's left ... so you can go to school and get your degree," Burns told the crowd.

It all made sense to Nate Zanoni, 19, of Berlin.

He volunteers with his hometown fire department while continuing his education at Seton Hill University - a move that also requires him to work two jobs to pay his bills, he said.

As a private school student, Burns' plan wouldn't help his college costs "but I know there's a lot of people it would help," Zanoni said.

It could help volunteer departments like Berlin's, he added, noting that the lure of a college scholarship would be an enticing one for young adults who might think they cannot afford college otherwise.

Geeseytown firefighter Bill Vanatta agreed.

He said there are times when stations like his receive an influx of young new volunteers, but it's not always easy to keep them on board after they graduate from high school.

"We're all getting older, then the younger generation always says they don't have time," said John Hawksworth, a longtime Dauntless firefighter who runs the Patton area training school.

"If my kids were going to get a scholarship, I think suddenly they'd make some time."

Burns said it would likely require a $2 million appropriation to launch the scholarship program, something state leaders would have to consider while deliberating plans for the 2017-18 budget.

But he sees "real value" to his plan, not just for firefighters and the departments they serve, but for Pennsylvania's local communities.

If proven ways aren't found to lure the next generation of young adults into fire stations, a growing number will fold - and that will hurt small towns in more ways than one, he said.

"It's easy to forget how much we're saving on insurance rates because those volunteer departments are right down the road from our houses," Burns said.

Burns' proposal is being reviewed by the state House's veterans affairs and emergency preparedness committee.

Fourteen other state House lawmakers from both parties have signed on as cosponsors in recent days.

"I see this proposal as a real win-win. We're promoting volunteerism, we're supporting the firefighters who protect us and we're training our future workforce at the same time," he said.

Guaranteed cash flow during transition.