For Pennsylvania firefighters and first responders, canceling student debt is not a priority | Pennsylvania

(The Center Square) – A Pennsylvania Democrat floats the idea of ​​offering student loan forgiveness to first responders, but it’s unclear whether student loan debt is deterring people from joining a fire company or a EMS equipment.

House Bill 2725sponsored by Rep. Chris Sainato, D-New Castle, would forgive $16,000 in student loans after four years of service for first responders who work for an emergency medical services agency, volunteer fire company or rescue company voluntary.

“Fire and EMS agencies across the Commonwealth are struggling to recruit young members, so the fire and EMS workforce crisis will only get worse in the years to come,” wrote Sainato in a legislative note. “We must act to encourage young people to serve in our public safety sector. I believe offering student loan forgiveness to first responders is an innovative and effective recruitment and retention tool.

Staffing issues have been a long-standing issue in Pennsylvania, as The Center Square has Previously reported. Sainato pointed out a 2018 report from the Legislative Fire and EMS Caucus who noted that the number of firefighters in the state fell from 300,000 in the 1970s to 30,000 before the pandemic.

The decline in statewide volunteerism to staff emergency medical services and fire companies was a major concern of the report, along with funding issues.

“From the perspective of volunteers, increased family needs and other societal factors have led to a decrease in free time or interest in volunteering in emergency departments,” the report notes. “The dwindling number of volunteers, along with the PA 37 requirement that EMS agencies be available and on duty 24 hours a day, is another reason why many agencies have been forced to replace non-existent volunteers. by career personnel.

However, canceling student loans as a means of solving these problems is not a priority for Commonwealth firefighters. Firefighters already qualified for the Federal Civil Service Loan Forgiveness Program, as it is.

“I have to say, at least from my perspective, we would have higher priorities than this bill,” said Jim Carstater, chairman of the Pennsylvania Firefighters Association’s Legislative and Legislative Committee.

The association has not taken an official position on the bill.

“There have been all kinds of proposals to cancel all student debt, and I really don’t see us supporting spending that kind of money when we have so many other public safety crisis situations where that money could be put to much better use,” Carstater said. . “And I’m not at all sure what impact that would have on the fire service when you look at the demographics of the members and how many of them actually get into the fire service to begin with.”

Instead, Carstater pointed to higher priority issues for the association like consolidating some public safety departments, especially for EMS, restoring full-time equivalent reimbursements to community colleges for safety training programs. and increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates for rendering emergency medical services. more financially viable.

“It’s not a question of whether we have the money or not, it’s a question of whether public safety is a priority or not. And that’s clearly not the case,” Carstater said. “Public safety is no longer a public priority until there is a fire and no one comes or they have a heart attack and there is no ambulance.”

Pennsylvania’s diversity makes it difficult to have a one-size-fits-all approach to all first responder needs. The issues facing big cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh differ from rural areas like Potter and Elk counties.

“We’ve basically been re-addressing these same issues for 50 years and have refused to really delve into what needs to be done to actually address these issues,” Carstater said.

Julio V. Miller