STATE - Senator Lisa Baker (R-20) and Senator Sean Wiley (D-49) are collaborating on a bill that will help out volunteer firefighters.

Senate Bill 299 is being reintroduced in the legislate to address the issue of declining volunteers.

If passed, the bill would give municipalities the power to waive their local earned income tax for volunteer first responders.

Volunteers at nonprofit emergency medical service (EMS) agencies would also be eligible to receive the tax credit under the provisions of Senate Bill 299.

The bill is an amendment to Title 35 (Health and Safety) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, which provides incentives for “municipal volunteers of fire companies and nonprofit emergency medical services agencies,” according to the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

“Many Pennsylvanians do not realize that 96 percent of our firefighters are not paid for jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to fight a fire or run to the scene of an accident,” she stated. “Giving firefighters and EMTs a small break on their local taxes is a simple benefit that will compensate them in some small measure for their priceless life-saving work.”

Senator Wiley agreed, noting, "Erie County is fortunate to have more than 30 volunteer fire and EMS companies, staffed by volunteers who give countless hours to ensure the safety and well-being of our neighbors.”

Baker was the chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee for seven years.

The idea for the legislation was bolstered by a joint hearing on firefighter and EMT retention and recruitment held in 2013 by that committee and the Majority Policy Committee.

Baker said not all municipalities in the state have the earned income tax, but the majority do.

Extending an earned income tax credit was among a menu of solutions offered by experts as a preferred recruitment and retention tool.

Baker and Wiley said the bill is expected to be part of a larger package of incentives to fill the rapidly declining ranks of volunteer firefighters and EMTs, which have dropped from 300,000 to 50,000 in 30 years.

The decrease is attributed largely to the prevalence of two-income families, the demands of incessant fundraising, local leadership conflicts, and the stagnant economy.

Baker has compiled ideas from a working group to advance other strategies for a comprehensive First Responder Relief package.

“There are five more bills that are being introduced to the Senate that address some sort of volunteer firefighter or EMS personnel recruitment and retention,” said Andrew Seder, District Communications/Constituent Services for Pike and Wayne Counties for Baker.

Under Senate Bill 299 municipalities would have the power to set the amount of the tax credit and the guidelines of the program, including specifying the number of calls to which a volunteer must answer and the level of training they must have.

“She [Baker] is aware there's an issue,” Seder said. “There are a lot of solutions. It's just a matter of trying to address the needs of the state and trying to encompass as many departments as possible.”

He added Baker has been working on the matter of volunteer firefighter and emergency response retention and recruitment since she's been in office.

“She's been listening to the plight of first responders and has worked to think of solutions that can help locally and statewide,” Seder stated. “There are more bills that will be introduced. Other senators are introducing some as well.

“She [Baker] will continue to fight to make sure firemen and emergency responders are able to respond when someone dials 9-1-1.”

Baker was also part of a working group made up of professional and volunteer firefighters and EMS associations, elected officials, the state fire commissioner and members of PEMA.

It was formed in 2013.

The group compiled a report, entitled The Challenges of Firefighting Today, which addresses issues emergency responders face and some solutions.

Members of the legislator are taking recommendations from the report and turning them into legislations that can help responders.

The majority of municipalities statewide have the earned income tax, but in our area it's hit or miss.

Seder said in Wayne County there are six municipalities that have the tax including Dreher Township, Lehigh Township, Lake Township, Salem Township, Mount Pleasant Township and Sterling Township.

“Although the tax credit program would be optional for local governments, we hope every municipality will see the virtue of keeping and attracting its volunteer firefighters. When those first flames begin, every second counts.

“We cannot afford to sound the alarm and find that no one is available,” Baker explained.

Information from a release was used in this story.