The Fire Department Dilemma
Traditionally, funding for public safety is traditionally left to municipalities who view only law enforcement as the sole receiver of financial obligations. With the primary focus on protecting citizens through regional, local, or state police departments, elected officials may neglect other aspects of public safety, namely fire and emergency medical services.
With fire departments throughout the Commonwealth primarily staff their apparatus with volunteers, the stark reality is that people are not able to commit as they once did during the days where employers would allow the employees to leave for fire calls. Members often face a difficult decision where if they have an option to obtain an extra shift at their primary job for additional income, work longer hours, or watch their children as a fire call is dispatched.
Another issue is the training someone who is interested in volunteering must attend in order to become certified. Currently, the minimum number of hours to complete the Firefighter I certification estimates to be 166. The commitment needed to obtain certification is time-consuming and requires long hours throughout the week and some weekends. This takes time away from family and other priorities some face when trying to complete the training.
Funding Fire Protection
The cost to train, recruit, and retain firefighters has grown exponentially throughout the years. Volunteerism throughout Pennsylvania has seen an annual decrease in the amount of available personnel to dedicate their time to helping their local community respond to a variety of fire calls at all times during the day. With many options available to municipalities to help with maintaining a staffed department, one of the most glaring solutions is additional funding. Whether it is a tax on each property based on assessment values and a millage rate or a per-capita fee, the need to raise additional funding becomes a political issue where elected officials do not want to enact legislation calling for a financial burden on the citizens. The question then becomes, how does a local municipality pay for training, fire apparatus, recruitment and retention initiatives without an appetite for public funding mechanisms?
The short answer is it depends. Most departments rely on their own fundraising programs, grants, or other revenue generators to sustain their operation. Municipal fire departments are solely funded through tax dollars yet volunteer departments may rely on a fire tax or an annual stipend by their sponsoring municipality. Below is a chart that outlines a summary of total municipalities throughout Pennsylvania who fund fire departments through a millage rate for services rendered.
The Math for Funding
As described in the above table, there are 929 municipalities that range from boroughs to cities who enacted some form of a fire tax for the 2022 calendar/fiscal year. With a tax rate specifically earmarked for its specific purpose, the total funding is derived from calculating the assessed value of a property and multiplying that figure by the millage rate. For example, if a property is assessed at $100,000 and the municipality only taxes at 50% of the assessed value, an owner will receive a tax bill in the amount of $15.00 for a millage rate of 0.3. Although the amount may seem minimal, the tax collected throughout the municipality potentially collects tens of thousands of dollars in revenue specifically earmarked for fire services.
The fire service in Pennsylvania is experiencing a decline in volunteerism, with not true plan to rectify the issue. Although there are some municipalities who express a desire to enact some form of taxation specifically for the purpose of generating revenue to help the fire department, the amount does not fully fund the service. As discussed in the above text, the problem is worsening and without a drastic change in how municipalities utilize their volunteer fire service and appropriate adequate support and funding, the delays in response are inevitable with subsequent property damage as a direct result of insufficient resources.