Centre County volunteer firefighters to receive over $900,000 in aid, but is that enough?

Centre County volunteer firefighters are set to receive over $900,000 in aid that will allow local companies to pay for equipment and training, but some companies say it isn’t enough to front the cost of increasingly expensive gear and skills programs.

On Tuesday, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announced the release of nearly $60 million in aid to help support volunteer firefighters’ relief associations across the state, a nearly $5 million increase from last year.

“State aid provided to volunteer firefighters’ relief associations helps dedicated first responders save lives and protect our communities,” DePasquale said during a visit to the Steelton Fire Department in Dauphin County. “The state funding I am announcing today will help provide life-saving equipment, critical training insurance for tens of thousands of volunteer firefighters all across the state.”

Despite the increase in funding allocations, Centre Region Council of Governments Fire Director Steve Bair said relief funds come with “a lot of restrictions on how you can use this money.”

“It’s helpful, don’t get me wrong,” Bair said. “The list of things is robust, but you can’t use the money to do things like building repairs or hiring people.”

The most costly and common expenses fire companies must buy, Bair said, are training and gear — “two areas you don’t want to skimp on.”

Gregg Township Fire Department volunteers organize stacks of hoagies they made for their hoagie sale on Jan. 31, 2019. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

A set of personal protection equipment costs between $350,000 and $370,000 and is used for about 10 years, Bair said. With breathing apparatuses costing an average $6,000 per person and a shelf life of 15 years, Bair said funding, while appreciated, doesn’t go very far.

“If you want to rely on volunteers, you have to protect them,” Bair said.

Volunteer firefighters’ relief association funding comes from a 2% state tax on fire insurance premiums purchased by residents from out-of-state insurance companies. While the program is helpful, Bair said legislators should rethink its structure and distribution guidelines, saying that Centre County fire companies in more populated and growing areas receive more funding compared to rural townships.

“Folks in rural areas are not getting a lot of money,” Bair said.

State aid was distributed to municipalities last month and must be transferred to VFRAs within 60 days of receipt. Under DePasquale’s 2019 state aid distribution, 2,518 municipalities received $59.99 million for distribution to volunteer firefighters’ relief associations.

“We don’t let that money sit,” Bair said.

Howard Volunteer Fire Company President Mark Ott said he wasn’t sure if his company would benefit from the funding but added that the money wouldn’t be able to pay bills at the station.

“Every little bit helps,” Ott said. “It’s not insignificant, but it has its limits.”

Because relief aid doesn’t provide enough to keep local fire companies afloat, Ott said many companies rely on community donations and fundraisers. On Saturday, the Howard Fire Company will host its Punkin’ Chunkin’ Festival at Bald Eagle State Park, an event that generates about 25% of the company’s total budget.

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Marley Parish reports on local government for the Centre Daily Times. She grew up in Slippery Rock and graduated from Allegheny College.