May 30, 2023

For Our First Responders

The House Republican Policy Committee held a tour and public hearing, hosted by Rep. Ryan Mackenzie at the Emerald Star Hose Fire Company in Lehigh County, to hear from our first responders as to the current status of Pennsylvania EMS and firefighters. The situation is dire, and recruitment and retention of EMS and firefighting personnel is struggling. Efforts to consolidate departments, provide financial stability, and incentivize the selfless individuals that pursue a career or volunteer as first responders are necessary to maintain the safety and serenity of our communities. Our first responders face many challenges and obstacles when performing their duties, and the Policy Committee is determined to hear their concerns and work to defend their ability to respond to emergencies and save lives.

The testifiers that joined the Policy Committee were as follows:


Tito Burgos - Fire Chief, Emerald Star Hose Fire Company #1

Brian Carl - Deputy Chief, Weisenberg Volunteer Fire Department

J.T. Klein - Firefighter, Northeast Field Service Representative, Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association


Don DeReamus - Legislative Committee Chair, Ambulance Association of Pennsylvania

Howard Schwartz - Certified Paramedic and Board Trustee, Northern Valley EMS

Open Panel

John Price - Director of Emergency Services/Fire Chief, Emmaus Fire Department

Bob Elbich - Lehigh County Commissioner

David Nelson - Fire Chief, Whitehall Fire Department

Jim Steward - Fire Chief, Neffs Volunteer Fire Department

Dennis Wetherhold - Captain, Slatedale Fire Department

Agenda - Bios – Testimony

For Our Firefighters

Our firefighters, both volunteer and professional, are in dire need of assistance. Money is tight, volunteerism is down, and local departments are struggling to maintain their facilities and workforce. Fire Chief Tito Burgos, who directed the day’s tour of the Emerald Star Hose Fire Company, began the days hearing by expressing the many obstacles faced by his volunteer department.

Grants, grants, and more grants. That is what Chief Burgos needs, searches for, and cannot find enough of. State, local, and federal funding for volunteer firefighters is not nearly enough to cover the equipment and operations of a department even when the men and women who operate as firefighters do so without pay and on their own time. Chief Burgos expressed that searching for grants is a job in-itself, is very time consuming, and the application process can come at a financial cost of its own. Emerald Star Hose Fire Company, like so many other volunteer departments, cannot continue to exist through selling hoagies, renting out their facilities, and hosting auctions just to stay afloat.

To address the financial and manpower concerns of his fire department, Chief Burgos shared that a “One Stop Shop” should be created to ease grant visibility and applications. Furthermore, to increase retention and onboarding of new volunteer firefighters state incentives such as tuition assistance, tax rebates, CDL training, and a pension program should be pursued. Finally, it should be known by Pennsylvanians of all abilities and ages that local volunteer fire departments will take all the help they can get. You don’t need to run into a burning building to be a firefighter, as someone is always needed to maintain the trucks, take care of the finances, and organize events. Volunteering as a firefighter is a righteous means of giving back to your community and protecting those around you.

“We can’t continue to sell hoagies to buy new firetrucks!”

Tito Burgos
Fire Chief, Emerald Star Hose Fire Company #1

Brian Carl, Deputy Chief of Weisenberg Volunteer Fire Department, offered concerns similar to those expressed by Chief Burgos. Financial concerns are at the forefront of Weisenberg Volunteer Fire Department, and like so many other volunteer departments the state, local, and federal funding they receive is not enough to keep the lights on or fuel their trucks. State law enables local municipalities to charge residents and businesses with a “fire fee”, but often this fee goes unpaid and is not enough to sustain departments. Further exacerbating the financial concerns of our departments is the unpredictability of compensation for a department’s response. A department responds to an emergency, addresses the concern, and then must contend with insurance agencies for months on end in an effort to break even on the call. Often, final payment arrives months after the emergency, if at all, and rarely amounts to the true cost of the call.

To ease financial burdens and increase the number of active firefighters local departments have considered consolidating their resources and equipment to serve larger areas. Neighboring departments can share trucks and tools while having greater assurance that adequate manpower will arrive to the scene. Consolidation of departments is gaining traction, and is becoming increasingly necessary, but there are no state incentives to consolidate and guidance on the process is limited.

Deputy Chief Carl expressed that state agencies must do more to assist our volunteer firefighters. Volunteers sacrifice their time to respond to emergencies and run into burning buildings, not direct traffic for hours after an emergency has been resolved. It would ease the time burden on our first responders if PennDOT actively communicated with their teams and relieve them of road crew duty as soon as possible. Furthermore, there are not enough firefighter training facilities available to residents throughout the state. These facilities are crucial to properly train volunteers, but the volunteers cannot afford to travel extensive distances to access the training facilities. Increasing the number of facilities, and offering some classes online or “virtually”, will increase departments’ abilities to onboard new volunteers and maintain a sufficient level of readiness and expertise.

“It is not feasible to ask a volunteer, that risks their life to respond to emergencies, to raise money just to keep the lights on and fuel in their trucks.”

Brian Carl
Deputy Chief, Weisenberg, Volunteer Fire Department

J.T. Klein, a professional firefighter and Northeast Field Service Representatives for the Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association, concluded the firefighter panel with the concerns held by professional firefighters in Pennsylvania. Urban areas are increasing in population, volunteerism is dwindling, and the Commonwealth will likely need to utilize an increasing number of professional firefighters to maintain public safety and protect our property. Volunteers, with their own careers outside of firefighting, cannot be expected to carry the immense responsibility of protecting lives and livelihoods alone.

A concern at the top of Mr. Klein’s list is that of PTSD/PTSI and the mental health toll of being a first responder. PTSD/PTSI is inherent to a career where your life is on the line and lives are saved and lost daily. There may not be a specific triggering incident, but years of responding to emergencies and seeing the best and worst of humanity will almost undoubtedly incur stresses outside of what should be expected for any line of work. In short, PTSD/PTSI are occupation injuries all firefighters face.

A secondary concern brought to the attention of the Policy Committee, and currently being addressed through state and federal regulations, is that of PFAS. PFAS, also known as Teflon, is a forever chemical that is extensively used in firefighting gear. This material, though excellent in its capabilities within advanced equipment and flame retardants, can be cancer causing and poses significant risk to those that don a firefighters equipment. Mr. Klein asked that gear and equipment that contain PFAS be noted to avoid prolonged exposure, and alternatives to PFAS should be pursued.

“I respect anyone who answers the call, but we need to think about how we provide these services to our communities.”

J.T. Klein
Firefighter, Northeast Field Service Representative, Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association

For Our EMS

EMS providers, like our firefighters, are struggling to attract new recruits, retain existing personnel, and maintain financial stability. They must respond to an emergency, but there is no mandate that they will get paid. They must witness indescribable crises, and then return to normal lives. They must provide aid to all, even when there is increasing hostility towards EMS personnel. Don DeReamus, Legislative Committee Chair of the Ambulance Association of Pennsylvania, joined the Committee to express the concerns and challenges facing our EMS providers throughout the state.

Mr. DeReamus shared the mental and emotional toll of serving as an EMS provider. It is the nature of the career to experience life and death on a near daily basis, but even the most hardened veterans experience PTSD/PTSI from years of exposure to the extremes of humanity. 30% of first responders experience PTSD, as compared to only 8.7% of the general population. EMT suicides have now surpassed line-of-duty deaths, a clear sign of an ongoing mental health crisis. Often, if there is no single particular incident to attribute the PTSD symptoms to, and insurers are unwilling to provide coverage. The toll incurred by PTSD/PTSI, are not recognized under Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation statute, thus limiting assistance to only those that can afford help with their own personal funds.

Compounding on the mental health toll, our EMS providers also contend with going unpaid for their services. EMS is MANDATED to respond to an emergency and provide care to all people, yet there is no mandate that the EMS provider gets compensated. If the patient has insurance, then the EMS provider may get a portion of the cost of their service long after the service has been rendered. If the patient is without insurance, then the EMS provider may get nothing. Overall, our EMS providers receive only 30 to 40 cents on the dollar for the true cost of their time, labor, materials, and personal sacrifice.

A final concern shared by Mr. DeReamus is that of hostility towards EMS personnel. In recent years there has been an increase in assaults on EMS providers in the line of duty, and this cannot be tolerated. Our EMS is already contending with immense pressures, and cannot be asked to place themselves at risk of life and limb when they are trying to save lives. Respect for our first responders is paramount to the continued safety of our lives and our communities.

“We bear witness to the best and worst of humanity and live with the good and bad outcomes of our work, some of those images seared into our souls.”

Don DeReamus
Legislative Committee Chair, Ambulance Association of Pennsylvania

Howard Schwartz, a Certified Paramedic and Board Trustee of Northern Valley EMS, concluded the day’s hearing by sharing his personal experience as a career paramedic. Howard has served as a National Registered Paramedic for 33 years, and began as a volunteer with his local ambulance service while in high school. He has operated as a paramedic from helicopters, planes, and now has returned to his roots and operates from his local ambulance. Mr. Schwartz has an impressive resume, decades of service, loves his community, and has saved countless lives.

Howard chose to share his specific experience with PTSD/PTSI, and his struggle to find assistance through his insurance provider. After decades of responding to calls and saving lives, the experience that most impacted Howard was when he contracted COVID while on a call in 2020. He responded to a family who were desperate for aid, he provided care and transport to a medical facility that could assist them, and then he went back to his own home now COVID positive. COVID hit Howard hard, forcing him to take time off work to seek treatment, put pressure on his wife who had a fulltime career of her own, and he considered his own mortality and uncertain future. Howard’s battle with COVID and the impact the experience had on him and his family still leaves him anxious and stressed to this day, yet the PTSI he experiences is not recognized or addressed through his insurance. He is fighting for compensation like so many other EMS providers, as his trauma stemmed from what is essentially an occupational injury.

“I’ve almost died while caring for someone else.”

Howard Schwartz
Certified Paramedic and Board Trustee, Northern Valley EMS

Our first responders are contending with a multitude of obstacles and challenges that, in turn, pose a risk to all Pennsylvanians. The House Republican Policy Committee is immensely thankful for their service, and will continue to hear the concerns of citizens across the state to find solutions to the problems and policies impeding the work of our brave men and women in uniform. Our firefighters and EMS personnel make immense sacrifices for their neighbors and communities, and we must recognize their service and ensure they are supported in all facets of their work.