Pa. bill would exclude volunteer fire, EMS depts. from open records requests
Legislators said they have seen how hard it is to recruit and retain volunteers and that the paperwork required with fulfilling requests would be "burdensome"
By Peg Quann
Bucks County Courier Times
LEVITTOWN, Pa. — Volunteer fire companies and emergency medical service companies throughout Pennsylvania will no longer have to comply with Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Act if a bill that the state House of Representatives approved earlier this month is enacted into law.
The legislation, House Bill 1780, was approved by a vote of 166-34. It would exempt volunteer first responders from needing to answer requests for information covered by the state's 2008 public records law.
All local state representatives voted in favor of the proposal except Reps. Tina Davis, D-141, of Bristol Township and Benjamin Sanchez, D-153, who represents Abington and Upper Dublin in Montgomery County. State Rep. John Galloway, D-140, had an excused absence and didn't vote.
The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association sent a letter to a state legislative committee in September opposing the bill on the grounds that "records belonging to these organizations would not be available and accessible to the public they serve."
"In 2018, $55.1 million, raised from a 2% sales tax on fire insurance premiums, purchased by state residents, was distributed to these volunteer firefighters' relief association accounts statewide," the PNMA stated.
The association noted that 59 volunteer fire companies have access to more than $1 million each in their volunteer firefighters' relief association accounts. It also stated that a report by the state's Auditor General showed that in an audit of only 11 volunteer fire companies, three had "financial mishandling" issues. In 2017, the then-vice president/treasurer/secretary of the Feasterville Volunteer Firefighters Relief Association criminally appropriated $51,000.
But legislators said they have seen how hard it is for local fire companies to recruit and retain volunteers and that the paperwork required with fulfilling Right-to-Know requests about house fires, vehicles accidents and budget issues were "burdensome."
"It's one of those bills that you look at and say, 'Gosh, which way,'" said State Rep. Perry Warren, D-10, of Newtown Borough.
Because most fire companies are volunteer organizations, he feels they shouldn't be held as accountable to the RTKL as a government body. He said, however, that he would be open to amendments to the legislation if the Senate adds any and the bill comes back to the House before going to Gov. Tom Wolf for his signature.
State Rep. Wendy Ullman, D-143, of Plumstead, said legislators recognized that without Right-to-Know legislation there could be an environment where misuse of funds could occur, but that most fire departments are staffed by dedicated volunteers. Understaffed fire companies can't even get the grant applications out "to keep tires on the firetrucks and keep stations with the required equipment," she added.
State Rep. Frank Farry, R-142, who is chief of the Langhorne-Middletown Fire Co., said most of fire departments in the state face critical shortages of volunteers and those who are serving don't have the time to be answering records requests.
His fire company answered 685 fire calls last year and is on a similar pace this year. Each fire report is between three and 10 pages long, he said. If an insurance company requests information on a fire, the company will send the report, as it will for any request from a municipal authority. Since budget information is audited, information about tax funds paid to the fire companies would be covered under Right-to-Know requests to the municipalities that supply the funding, he said.
"I don't think anybody doesn't want to turn over the information," he said, but as volunteers, "who's going to do that work?"
Davis said she voted for several other measures to support firefighters and other first responders, but felt she had to vote no on this one.
"It was a tough bill to vote against," she said. "I don't think anybody should be exempt from Right-to-Know because its taxpayer money" that supports many fire companies. She added that the fire company could require a payment to answer the request. "If it's a matter of money, they could charge the person ... There always has to be checks and balances and transparency."
The state's Office of Open Records (OOR), which oversees the right-to-know requests, considers volunteer fire and EMS companies "local agencies" under the RTKL, which means they're required to comply with its provisions. That's been challenged in local courts with varying results.
Holly Lubart, director of government affairs for the PNMA, said the association is working on a draft amendment it wants to propose to the state Senate for when it takes up the bill, "that we believe would work for all parties."
"We absolutely understand the plight and are sympathetic to the issues surrounding Pennsylvania's volunteer firefighter and EMS responders," she said. "We are trying to preserve the public's right to access financial information regarding the use of public funds and other records which strictly relate to these organizations' governmental functions."
©2019 Bucks County Courier Times, Levittown, Pa.