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Pa. lawmakers struggle with how to split $60M in grant funding for fire, EMS companies

Governor Josh Shapiro proposes doubling the Fire and EMS Grant Program to $60 million in FY2025

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Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.


By Eric Scicchitano
The Daily Item

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania lawmakers are grappling with potential changes to a vital funding resource for fire and emergency medical services ahead of the adoption of the commonwealth’s next budget.

Gov. Josh Shapiro proposes doubling the allocation for the Fire and EMS Grant Program to $60 million in fiscal 2025, and during a hearing on a related bill proposal Tuesday before the House Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee, there was no public pushback on the proposed increase itself.

Issues arose surrounding how the funding could be split among fire and EMS companies and whether the total is enough to address a crisis threatening the viability of emergency response across the commonwealth.

Perhaps the most pressing is simply reauthorizing the program. It’s set to expire on June 30, the day a new budget is due.

About 2,500 fire, EMS and rescue squads share in roughly $30 million currently available through the grant program. The maximum award is about $20,000 for fire companies and $15,000 for EMS companies. The grants allow for reimbursement of eligible purchases including vehicles, equipment and infrastructure upgrades.

“We’re failing every day. EMS agencies are closing on a regular basis,” Gary Watters, Ambulance Association of Pennsylvania president, said to committee members.

Watters said EMS companies struggle to hire staff, response times have worsened and some companies closed. Under the current program, he said about $7.3 million was split among 504 EMS agencies with 754 eligible to apply.

House Bill 2407 would reauthorize the program through 2029 and raise the total allocation to $60 million in alignment with Shapiro’s budget ask. According to Watters, about $12.5 million would then be specifically available to EMS agencies, however, he said an additional 490 companies — an overwhelming majority aligned with fire companies — would become eligible, potentially reducing the average grant award.

He advocated for an equal share for all eligible companies rather than differentiating between fire, EMS and others.

“It doesn’t fix the system. What we need to do, quite frankly, is get back to parity,” Watters said.

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Introduced by Rep. Jared Solomon, D- Philadelphia, the committee’s majority chair, the bill is a work in progress. For example, after a trio of meetings with stakeholders in the past week-plus, Solomon said one aspect of the proposal is set to change.

About $7.8 million was set aside for county-based fire modernization grants. Instead, Solomon said it will be revised to propose a year-round fund to aid companies that experience a catastrophe such as a natural disaster or infrastructure failure.

Rep. Paul Takac, D- Centre, expressed a preference to use the funds to boost the base grants for fire and EMS companies or to make training opportunities more affordable for first responders.

Jerome Ozog, executive director, of Pennsylvania Fire & Emergency Services Institute, said a majority of emergency organizations were concerned with $7.8 million being set aside for an emergency fund, instead preferring it be put into the field.

“The emergency is you can’t keep the doors open and you’re doing mutual aid on every call,” Takac said. “That, to me, is the real issue.”

Rep. James Rigby, R- Cambria / Somerset, hinted at other potential legislative remedies including improving reimbursement from insurance companies for EMS services that could help boost pay for professional staff.

“By freeing up other money would that be able to roll possibly into payroll? Manpower is a huge issue. Ambulances are down to skeleton crews and some don’t have overnight shifts anymore,” Rigby said.

“The more money you can free up on equipment and facility costs, sure, it goes into the general fund and you can free it up for payroll,” Watters said, though, he cautioned that since the grant program is for reimbursements, many companies are limited at what they can spend upfront.

Rep. Jim Haddock, D- Luzerne / Lackawanna, said he was concerned that debate over the proposal could get caught up in the overall budget negotiations and potentially cause it to lapse.

Rep. Mark Gillen, R- Berks, the committee’s minority chair, said that’s not an option.

“We will now let that happen. We will not let you down,” Gillen said later in the meeting in remarks for emergency responders. “Our goal is to grow the pie and make sure it’s split up in an equitable way.”

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