Sainato, colleagues unveil bipartisan bills to boost ranks of first responders

HARRISBURG, Oct. 21 – Continuing his efforts to improve emergency preparedness in Pennsylvania, state Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence, joined fellow lawmakers today at Soldiers’ Grove to outline legislation that would help recruit and retain first responders in the commonwealth.

Sainato, who is Democratic chairman of the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, discussed a slate of bills he and other legislators introduced in response to last year’s report released by the SR 6 Commission – a bicameral, bipartisan commission formed to recommend improvements to the delivery of emergency services in Pennsylvania. 

“The message from the SR 6 Commission was clear,” Sainato said. “The number of volunteer firefighters and emergency responders has been declining for decades, and we need to stem the flow now, to protect public safety and keep the burden off taxpayers. We’ve relied on our first responders to answer the call. Now, we need to answer their call with legislation to turn things around.

“That legislation includes my bills that would help recruit and retain volunteers by offering them a measure of student loan forgiveness after four years of service and by extending the soon-to-expire Fire Company and EMS Grant Program and expanding it to fund programs that reward volunteers for their service. These bills – together with others introduced by my colleagues – are part of a bipartisan effort that will rebuild the ranks of volunteers for years to come.”

Sainato said some of the bills reported by committees and headed for House votes include:  

  • H.B.1834, which would extend the soon-to-expire Fire Company and EMS Grant program and expand its use to include length-of-service programs and other recruitment efforts.
  • H.B. 1786, which would forgive up to $16,000 in student loan debt after a college graduate has served four years with a volunteer fire company or EMS agency.
  • H.B. 1673, which would allow use of relief monies to fund new programs such as a length-of-service award program.
  • H.B. 1816, which would increase the loan limits available under the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program.
  • H.B. 432, which would expand post-traumatic stress injury benefits for first responders.
  • H.B. 1448, which would expand the existing Volunteer Loan Assistance Program to allow volunteer, career and combination fire, ambulance and rescue services to access low-interest loans.
  • H.B.1459, which would create a first responder mental wellness/stress management program. 

Sainato added that additional bills would provide emergency volunteers with tax credits and tuition assistance, among other incentives.

It’s estimated that the number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania declined from about 300,000 in the 1970s to no more than 38,000 in 2018.