By Steve Bittenbender | The Center Square
A Pennsylvania House committee is weighing a measure that seeks to make changes in how fire and emergency services are administered in the state.
The House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee took up House Bill 1819, which would create a state Fire Commission.
State Rep. Austin Davis, D-McKeesport, the bill’s sponsor, said his district includes professional and volunteer-led fire departments that face issues regarding the ability to provide essential services and the ability to recruit and retain members.
“The communities I serve in southeast Allegheny County are facing many of the same challenges in the delivery of fire and emergency medical services that we’re witnessing across this commonwealth,” Davis said.
He told the committee he’s watched as it passed more than 20 bills that have origins from the Senate Resolution 6 Report recommendations from 2018. But, while programs and incentives may offer relief, he said they don’t necessarily address the bigger, underlying problem that will allow communities to offer emergency services for years to come.
So, Davis’ bill seeks to make “a big structural change” to the way the state organizes its support for local emergency service agencies. It would take the Fire Commissioner’s office and make it a 13-member commission that would include state fire chief – who would take over the duties of the commissioner.
Eight of the commission members would come from geographic districts within the state. The governor would appoint and the state Senate would confirm them. While the chief would serve as the chair of the commission, the chief would only vote to break a tie.
While Davis’ bill drew support from the firefighting community, they did offer the committee some recommended changes to the bill.
State Fire Commissioner Bruce Trego expressed concern about the power structure between the chief and the commission.
“Having the commission serve in an advisory capacity would allow the commissioner to continue serving the commonwealth Fire Service,” Trego said. “The commission would be able to provide the commissioner with recommendations for the future of the fire service but provide the commissioner with the authority to decide on the appropriate actions.”
Trego added current law allows for a Fire Safety Advisory Committee. While that committee hasn’t been functional in several years due to funding issues, Trego said it could handle some of the responsibilities set out in Davis’ bill.
Trego also had concerns about the geographic makeup of some of the districts, which he felt may be too large.
Jay Delaney, chief of the Wilkes-Barre Fire Department and the president of the Pennsylvania Career Fire Chiefs Association, did not like that the proposed commission includes representatives from business and industry, architectural firms and insurance companies.
“Private industry representation should not be part of the independent fire commission,” he said.
State Rep. Frank Farry, R-Langhorne, who chairs the committee’s subcommittee on security and emergency response, said he appreciated getting the insights from the firefighting community on the bill.
“I think the testimony was fairly consistent in terms of some proposed changes that probably need to be made to this bill,” Farry said.