Lawmakers consider overhaul of state oversight of fire companies

21 February 2020

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USA – Lawmakers are considering whether to replace the Office of State Fire Commissioner with a state fire commission that would have broader responsibilities and include membership from around the state.

The creation of a commission to guide the state’s network of volunteer and paid firefighters was one of the key recommendations included in a 2018 review of the state’s emergency services in response to the dramatic decline in the number of volunteers joining fire companies.

That report estimated that there are now fewer than 38,000 volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania. That’s a fraction of the 300,000 that answered when the state’s fire alarms sounded in the 1970s.

Under House Bill 1819, the Office of State Fire Commissioner would be replaced by a 13-member state fire commission. The fire commissioner’s job would be replaced by a state fire chief. Under the legislation, the state fire chief would chair the fire commission, but he or she wouldn’t have on a vote on commission matters unless there was a tie vote. The state director of the Department of Health’s Bureau of Emergency Services would serve in the non-voting role of vice chair of the commission.

The state’s existing Fire Commissioner Bruce Trego balked at the plan during a hearing before the House Veterans and Emergency Preparedness Committee.

Trego said the state already has an advisory commission to work with the fire commission.

The group has not been meeting due to insufficient funding.

That commission could accomplish the tasks envisioned in the legislation if the state would provide the money to cover travel expenses to reimburse members for participating, he said. Trego said that advisory commission hasn’t been meeting because his office doesn’t have the money to reimburse their travel costs.

State Rep. Austin Davis, D-Allegheny, authored HB 1819 and he said the challenges facing the future of emergency services in Pennsylvania are so serious that the Office of State Fire Commission isn’t equipped to handle them.

“I believe this bill is a good starting point,” he said.

The 11 voting positions include regional representatives divided between eight districts, with Philadelphia being one district, Allegheny County, including Pittsburgh, being another, and the rest of the state divided into six regions.

Those would include:

•The Second District, including Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

•The Third District, including Bedford, Blair, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Franklin, Forest, Fulton, Huntingdon, Jefferson, Juniata, McKean, Mercer, Mifflin, Venango and Warren counties.

•The Fifth District, including Berks, Bradford, Clinton, Columbia, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Lycoming, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Tioga, Schuylkill, Snyder, Sullivan, Union and Wyoming counties.

•The Fourth District would cover southcentral Pennsylvania and the Sixth and Seventh districts would include the counties in eastern Pennsylvania.

Trego said the proposal would create regions too large to be manageable and he suggested that the commission look for a different way to divide the state if it’s going to use regions for determining the makeup of the commission.

In addition to the regional representatives, HB 1819 would include an architect, an insurance industry representative and a representative of the business sector.

Charles McGarvey, chief fire officer and fire marshal for Lower Merion Township in Montgomery County, said that those industry representatives are not necessary.

“If it is determined that these positions are a necessity, I would recommend that they be non-voting members whose sole purpose would be to provide support and guidance,” he said.

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