Sainato: First responder loan forgiveness bill headed for vote

Would excuse student debt as incentive for volunteer service

HARRISBURG, Sept. 18 – A bill that would help retain and recruit volunteer emergency responders by offering student loan forgiveness after four years of service was unanimously approved by the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee today, according to the bill’s author, state Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence.

House Bill 1786 would establish The First Responder Loan Forgiveness Program, which would forgive up to $16,000 in loans to indebted college graduates after they have served four years with an emergency medical services agency, a volunteer fire company or a volunteer rescue company.

“Retaining and recruiting volunteer emergency responders are among the commonwealth’s greatest challenges today,” Sainato said. “The numbers are sobering: Last year, the results of a state report commissioned to study the problem found that the number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania declined from about 300,000 in the 1970s to no more than 38,000 in 2018. Compounding the problem, agencies are struggling the most to recruit younger members, which means that the numbers will only continue to decline in the years ahead.

“The consequences are already being felt, as some departments have been forced to reduce services or shut down, while others have had to hire additional paid staff. It’s a problem that threatens to undermine public safety, and surely one that will impact taxpayers if we don’t come up with viable solutions now. My bill would address the problem with an effective recruitment tool that would provide a real-life incentive to young Pennsylvanians struggling with student loan debt.”

The bill now heads to the House chamber for consideration and a vote.