Sainato: House unanimously passes legislation to establish first responder tuition and loan assistance program

Bill would also expand funding for firefighting and EMS services

HARRISBURG, Sept. 21 – A tuition and loan assistance program to help the state recruit and retain volunteer first responders is one step closer to becoming law after legislation including the proposal passed the House unanimously today, state Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence, announced.

Sainato, who is Democratic chairman of the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, said he introduced the program as an amendment to H.B. 1178 – which also would strengthen the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Grant Program and provide extra funding to firefighters and EMS workers from the recently passed Fireworks Law – to address a growing public safety issue.

“A Senate commission report showing that the number of Pennsylvania’s volunteer first responders has declined by nearly 90% – from about 300,000 in the 1970s to as few as 38,000 in 2018 – was a wakeup call that we need commonsense, bipartisan solutions to attract young people back to volunteer public safety jobs,” Sainato said. “Helping pay their tuition at state schools in exchange for service would be an effective recruiting tool that would ensure an ongoing supply of volunteers.

“The House’s vote today moves us one step closer to establishing that program and other measures to begin building back the ranks of volunteers while also supporting paid municipal fire and EMS services.”

The program, which would be established within the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, would provide tuition or loan assistance equal to $1,000 per academic year for full-time students and $500 per academic year for part-time students. In exchange, applicants would agree to serve as active volunteers for at least one year before enrolling in an education program and for at least five years after completing that program.

Applicants would be required to sign a promissory note obligating them to repay the tuition or loan assistance if they failed to satisfy the tuition and loan assistance program requirements.

Other provisions of H.B. 1178 would allow fire and EMS companies that have merged to continue receiving grants in the amounts they would have received had they not merged and would allocate funding transferred from the consumer fireworks tax to be used for firefighting and EMS services.