Local fire companies are divided on whether or not the expansion of the state volunteer loan assistance program to cover municipal EMS and fire companies would be beneficial.

Pennsylvania voters will see four ballot questions on the May 18 Municipal Primary ballot. They include one statewide referendum and three proposed constitutional amendments.

If the referendum is approved, municipal fire and emergency services companies in Pennsylvania with paid employees will be eligible to apply for state loans. That program currently only applies to volunteer EMS and fire companies.

The ballot question asks, “Do you favor expanding the use of the indebtedness authorized under the referendum for loans to volunteer fire companies, volunteer ambulance services and volunteer rescue squads under 35 PA.C.S. §7378.1 … to include loans to municipal fire departments or companies that provide services through paid personnel and emergency medical services companies for the purpose of establishing and modernizing facilities to house apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, and for purchasing apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, protective and communications equipment and any other accessory equipment necessary for the proper performance of the duties of the fire companies and emergency medical services companies?”

West Grove Fire Company, located in West Grove, Chester County, urged residents to vote “yes” on the question.

“The reason for our support is the fire service is changing, and increasingly fire companies are supplementing their volunteers with career staff,” according to a statement from the department. These funds would help municipalities improve stations and their facilities.

“This public referendum is important because its outcome will direct how these state loan programs are managed,” the statement adds. “These are not grant programs – this change involves state funds that fire companies can borrow to purchase apparatus or improve stations (at a low interest rate). If the referendum is approved, combination and municipal departments will be eligible.”

However, Judy Kirby, president of the Delaware County Firemen’s Association, expressed concern the expansion could leave less money available for volunteer-run organizations and departments that do not have access to state funding otherwise.

“Your municipal fire departments are hired and paid for by the towns. Your volunteer companies have no income and yes, they could apply for these loans,” Kirby said. “I think the volunteer fire companies need this money. We don’t want to take away from the volunteers.”

However, a joint statement released by the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute, the Pennsylvania Career Fire Chiefs Association, the Firemen’s Association State of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Professional Fire Fighters’ Association pointed out the loan fund is solvent and incurs a significant surplus every year.

The current balance for the loan assistance program is $47 million. Any loans taken out are paid back with interest, according to the statement.

“The Senate Resolution 6 Commission unanimously recommended to change the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program and add career/combination fire departments,” the statement said. “It is important to understand that currently 60 to 77 vehicles are funded per year, and it is estimated that adding 22 additional career departments would likely generate one additional vehicle loan per year and will not negatively hurt the program nor cause loan requests to be refused. Money from this program has been transferred for general government operations, and we strongly feel the fire service should benefit by adding the 22 career departments ahead of non-fire uses.”

The funds provided by the referendum are to be specifically used for equipment and capital investments and will allow municipal departments to renovate outdated and unsafe apparatus, J.T. Pennington, president of the Pennsylvania Professional Fire Fighters Association and Jay Delaney, fire chief of Wilkes-Barre and president of the Pennsylvania Career Fire Chiefs Association, said in a joint statement.

“Over the past year, firefighters and EMS professionals have answered the call to serve our communities in one of the most difficult environments in recent memory,” Pennington and Delaney said. “They have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, adapting to the needs of their community and stretching their resources as far as they can go. Faced with this challenge, these professionals rose above to continue delivering the services their neighbors expect. These efforts have strained budgets for many fire departments across our state.”

Access to these low-interest loans will allow local fire departments to focus more of their budgets on keeping firefighters on the job — not paying off high-interest loans or passing municipal bonds, Pennington and Delaney added.

“Absolutely vote yes,” said Gerry DiNunzio, president of the Chester County Fire Chiefs Association. “Any assistance a fireman can get to increase staffing or buy apparatus or increase the safety level for the public, in my opinion, is very paramount.”