ALTOONA, Pa. (WTAJ) — The Altoona Fire Department played center stage for Governor Josh Shapiro Monday morning who’s outlining part of his state budget aimed at helping first responders across the commonwealth.
Shapiro outlined his proposed state investments of $36 million in new equipment, training and salaries for firefighters and EMS personnel. He also detailed a $50 million proposal for Pennsylvania’s 9-1-1 emergency communications systems.
Joining Shapiro was Acting Fire Commissioner Tom Cook, Altoona Mayor Matt Pacifico, Blair County Commissioner Amy Webster, Altoona Fire Chief Adam Free and City of Altoona Firefighter & Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association Western Vice President Pat Miller.
These services are facing ongoing problems of staffing shortages and rising operation costs. Shapiro said statewide 9-1-1 centers are down 20 percent in their staffing. Then there are 22,000 fewer volunteer firefighters than 2018, and 6,000 fewer emergency medical technicians than in 2012.
“We have to act now. We have to make sure those resources are delivered so we can keep our communities safe,” Shapiro said. “All of this, the workforce shortages, and the last of resources puts a strain on the hard working firefighters who are standing here today.”
Shapiro said these funds are crucial in helping keep communities safe and departments running. He also said the money can take the burden off the county governments, who supply funding for the 9-1-1 centers and emergency departments.
During his visit, Shapiro received a tour of the Altoona Fire Department on Washington Ave. Additionally, he receives a demonstration from Altoona’s arson dog, Lucille.
“These are smart investments at a time when we can do a fiscally conservative budget,” Shapiro said. “We can also afford to make critical investments in public safety and that’s what I’m proposing to do.”
Free said how the shortages and costs are effecting the services that they provide. He also spoke about how recent hiring efforts have been challenging.
“Our most recent hiring campaign we had fewer than 30 applicants and after the testing process, we were left with ten eligible candidates,” Free said. “In the past year alone, the cost of our personal protective clothing has risen over $1,000 per set. Then the past four years, the cost of self-contained breathing apparatus has raised by over $2,000 a piece.”
Operating costs for 9-1-1 centers are also up 23%. Governor Shapiro said the $50 million would keep up with future inflation. Blair County 9-1-1 center takes are 84,000 calls a year. Commissioner Webster said she’s grateful for the funding and hopes it can help towards a new training facility.
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“Here in Blair County. We also love to have a new training facility so as to lessen the burden on our folks who have to travel elsewhere to get their training,” Commissioner Webster said.
Shapiro also announced his plans to invest $1.5 million towards a Municipal Assistance Program. This program support local governments and help counties share emergency resources to implement emergency support services and lead community revitalization efforts. That is a 266 increase from before.
“Creating a fund in Harrisburg that incentivizes cities, towns, and municipalities to work together to streamline their efforts,” Shapiro said. “To work together to share resources. To work together to make sure our townships and others can combine services for the betterment of our citizens.”