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“Full-scale catastrophe”: Pennsylvania emergency services implore state for urgent help

Without state-level fixes, police, fire and EMS experts say fewer Pennsylvanians will get help when they need it.

  • Sam Dunklau
Philadelphia firefighters and police work at the scene of a deadly row house fire, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia.

 Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Philadelphia firefighters and police work at the scene of a deadly row house fire, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Emergency responders are asking Pennsylvania lawmakers to help fix their staffing and funding problems – and are not putting too fine a point on it.

“This is a full-scale catastrophe,” PA State Troopers Association President David Kennedy told House Republican lawmakers Wednesday. “We simply don’t have enough officers to protect the citizens of this commonwealth.”

Don DeReamus of the Ambulance Association of Pennsylvania added: “To put it bluntly, the EMS system in the commonwealth is broken.” 

And United Ladder and Hook Co. 33 Chief Steve Rabine said, “We need to maintain our older [firefighter] members, and really there’s nothing there for our older members to want to stay around.”

Police, fire and EMS professionals are facing similar issues: too few staff to cover the areas most of them are responsible for, and not enough reliable funding to cover costs and retain reliable workers. Advocates say both issues, if left unattended, will make Pennsylvania less safe. 

The issue is particularly acute at police departments, where fewer people are responding to job postings than they did 30 years ago. Kennedy told the House GOP panel that he competed for a state trooper position against 10,000 others when he entered the profession in 1995. But last year, only 1,000 people applied for trooper posts.

Police officers are also quitting or retiring at higher-than-normal rates. Kennedy said resignations increased 15% in the last two years, while 45% more cops chose to retire.

Those who remain are spread thin.

“We’re now responsible for 85% of Pennsylvania’s landmass,” Kennedy said. “And every time a new program is initiated by state or federal authorities, the State Police is charged with implementing it without additional funding.” 

Harrisburg Police Captain Atah Akakpo-Martin said the city hired 45 officers between 2017 and 2022, but lost more than 60 in the same time period. In the last few years, Harrisburg has needed at least 20 more full-time officers to be fully staffed.

“We are all competing for the same individuals at times,” Akakpo-Martin said. “If you don’t have the means to invest in recruitment and retention, you are losing out.” 

The situation is not much better at EMS agencies and firehouses. Representatives for both said their costs have skyrocketed while funding is stagnant.

“The last fire truck I bought was in 2018, which cost $500,000,” Rabine said. “Today if I bought the same truck, it would cost $1.1 million…just to equip a firefighter with a helmet, coat, pants, boots and hood is $5,000.”

Rabine’s department, which merged with several others over a decade ago, covers 11 Adams and York county communities and sports four fire stations. He said his agency has more money than some rural departments and has received state and federal grant programs aimed at recruiting high schoolers for fire careers. 

But Rabine admitted the program hasn’t been as successful as he would have liked. 

“We have gained 60 new members, but out of those 60 new members, only 10 to 12 active firefighters came out of that,” he said.  

“When Mrs. Smith calls 911, she wants a professional to show up, whether it’s a career firefighter or a volunteer firefighter,” Rabine said. “At the end of the day, it’s all our goal to sustain that model and it all starts with funding, from the bottom on up.” 

DeReamus, who is also a paramedic in the Lehigh Valley, explained the problem EMS providers are facing in his area. Many are spread thin because of staffing shortages, which he said is forcing them to cover wider areas. That can increase response times.

“It’s not uncommon for… the City of Bethlehem to take a call in the City of Easton,” DeReamus said. “[At] my local service in Monroe County, it’s not uncommon for us to take calls in Pike County. That’s a 45-minute response time.

“In some cases, you might as well call the coroner,” he added.

Paying staff well enough is another problem. DeReamus explained ambulance companies are reimbursed by public and private insurers for their services, but those payments often don’t help them recoup the full cost of transporting someone. He and others have asked the state to help negotiate higher reimbursements.

Each group offered a wealth of possible fixes: pledging a certain amount of state funding for police departments each year, increasing incentives for emergency professionals to relocate to Pennsylvania, and merging smaller, understaffed agencies to form regional units.

That last fix was just implemented in northwest Lancaster County. EMS agencies there recently merged to create what’s being called the Municipal Emergency Services Authority of Lancaster County, which will cover eight Lancaster townships and boroughs.

Leaders in the state House and Senate did not say whether they’re willing to give emergency services more state funding. Senate Republicans, who control that chamber, pointed to several bills they considered last year to help volunteer fire companies.

One would have created a statewide firefighting training program for high school students, while another would have offered community college tuition credits for firefighters and their families. Neither made it out of the Senate.

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