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Officials hope report on volunteer emergency services is not another false alarm

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Emergency medical technicians Emily Reale, left, and Julie Cagno, of Susquehanna Township EMS, prepare an ambulance for duty.
Emergency medical technicians Emily Reale, left, and Julie Cagno, of Susquehanna Township EMS, prepare an ambulance for duty. - (Photo / )

A state Senate resolution recommending legislative efforts to improve the outlook for volunteer fire and emergency medical services in Pennsylvania is finding a lukewarm reception among emergency officials who feel they've seen the same report before.

The report offers solutions to issues plaguing both fire and emergency medical services in Pennsylvania. Recommendations include improving coordination between local governments and emergency services, providing incentives to help volunteer fire companies recruit and retain members, and enhancing state support of municipal emergency services.

The report — developed over the last two years by the Senate Resolution 6 commission, a group of 39 members from the state Senate, House, fire services, EMS and municipalities — builds on a similar report in 2004 but notes problems that have worsened in the past decade according to Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa Jr. (D-Allegheny), a member of the commission.

From 2013 to 2017, the number of EMS agencies in Pennsylvania dropped from 1,645 to 1,278 while the number of active volunteer firefighters plummeted from 300,000 in the 1970s to 38,000 in 2018, according to the report. The commission attributes the falling numbers to an array of causes, including declining reimbursements, limited financial support and a shift in society’s view of volunteerism.

Leaders in emergency medical services are wary of the new report, however. They argued that a majority of local and state leaders don’t seem to understand the gravity of the problem, that the report focuses on volunteer fire companies at the expense of EMS, and that the 2004 report did not yield enough solutions.

“Industry leaders have been sounding this alarm for years,” said Matthew Baily, executive director and chief of Susquehanna Township EMS. “Continued failure to act on the part of our legislators and municipalities will assuredly result in a large-scale collapse of Fire/EMS infrastructure in the commonwealth.”

The commission admits in the resolution’s introduction that the problems it describes are not new. And the resolution itself noted that the challenges facing state emergency services were not addressed quickly enough when they were raised in 2004.

Kraig Nace, chief of operations at Duncannon Emergency Medical Services, and a member of the commission, agreed that the system is broken for both EMS and volunteer fire services. Nace said the state cannot afford to sit on the report’s recommendations, as it did in 2004.

“If we don’t make decisive decisions in the next three years, it’s going to be ugly,” Nace said. “If something real doesn’t come from Senate Resolution 6, and there isn’t action on the legislative level, we are going to see ambulances failing calls.”

Bob May, executive director of Lancaster EMS, said he was cautiously optimistic the latest resolution would result in solutions for the state’s emergency services. May said that continued education is still crucial on a local level, where many municipalities provide minimal support to the services in their area.

“When I talk to legislators and county government, they say it’s a local problem and the municipalities say it’s a county problem,” May said. “It is all of our problems – county, local, state. We have to put our heads together to solve this problem.”

When the commission was first formed in 2016, many EMS leaders worried that it was weighted toward volunteer fire services. But, Nace said, the commission worked well together as it trimmed an initial list of 90 recommendations to a final list of 27.

“Everyone recognizes we are in this together,” Nace said. “It was very much a collaborative effort.”

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Ioannis Pashakis

Ioannis Pashakis

Ioannis Pashakis covers health care and Lancaster County. Email him at ipashakis@cpbj.com.

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