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The critical shortages facing our fire and EMS departments has been known for years culminating in the SR-6 report. The SR-6 was a joint Senate and House Commission to address this crisis adopted months after I assumed office in 2017.
Since that study, I am pleased to announce that many of the committee recommendations have passed the House (HB 1673, HB 1705, HB 1773, HB 1780, HB 1786) and are now awaiting action in the Senate. Act 106 has been signed by the Governor facilitating training opportunities for our volunteer firefighters. Most of the bills represent tax credits, tuition assistance, expense reimbursement and longevity awards for our first responders. Obviously, COVID-19 has caused some actions to be reviewed to determine the impact that the pandemic would have on the funding for the programs.
These programs will help our communities and first responders in all of Lebanon County. I have been stunned by the dedication of our volunteers and these bills will help them while they so willingly serve us and our communities.
But with all these possible laws, our fire and emergency services are still in crisis and will be for the foreseeable future until we see the effects of the changes we are making.
A summary of the SR-6 findings says it all:
Fire and EM as are in a crisis – right now. Simply put, EMS is woefully lacking in funding – and the number of volunteer firefighters has fallen dramatically over the decades.
There are 27 recommendations in the SR-6 report (pages 15 to 52 of the report). Our Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee to which I now in my third year are rolling out the bills after hearings to ensure that we have crafted the best possible workable solutions. We began that process late last term and all by two of the bills are moving rapidly.
What is critical to understand is that while we are very fortunate to have our fire companies, they do need our help. The passage of laws or bills will not change that.
Ambulance services and EMS personnel are facing the same hardships as the fire departments. Many of the services in our immediate area are okay financially but the financial problems of First Aid and Safety Patrol which provides redundancy to our other ambulance services are symptomatic of problems throughout the state.
“Once again, we are telling you that the EMS System; comprised of YOUR municipal or community ambulance service, aero-medical ambulance service and non-emergency ambulance service has no sustainable funding mechanism to prevent a public safety crisis!” (Testimony of Dean Bollendorf, President of the Ambulance Association of PA, March 7, 2017)
The problem of funding is a challenge since it varies so much within the Commonwealth and is caused predominately by substandard Federal reimbursement rates. We are working with our federal legislators to craft a solution to the funding crisis.
In a hearing on the crisis in February 2020 as part of the Aging and Adult Services Committee that I serve on, it become even more clear that the funding issue is not just with EMS and Fire but in the reimbursement for care for seniors in general. The testimony indicated that Fire, EMS and long-term care are all facing the same crisis. We heard testimony that overall reimbursement from the various payors has not increased nor have the rates been changed to offset the increasing regulatory cost.
In hearings in July we heard firsthand the impact on the emergency response systems due to the response to the pandemic such as elimination of elective procedures at health care facilities, reduced medical transport, and reduced ability to fund raise by volunteer agencies. Such funding disruptions are a major priority as we complete the 2020-21 budget negotiations.
I believe the state must provide assistance to help defray the cost to provide redundancy to an entire region making statewide funding more sustainable and logical in my mind. The system must have redundancy and capacity in times of crisis. It is a regional emergency redundancy.
In the coming months, we will keep you posted about the pending legislation for the SR-6 recommendations. In the interim, I also ask you to support of volunteer fire companies in our entire county.
Frank Ryan is the state Representative for the 101st Legislative District, which includes southern and western portions of Lebanon County. Ryan is a CPA and a retired U.S. Marine Reserve Colonel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.