HARRISBURG – With volunteer fire companies across Pennsylvania wrestling with staffing issues, Senator Dan Laughlin, who represents the 49th district, believes firefighter training for inmates can fill that community need and give individuals valuable skills that can help them reintegrate into society. That belief led Laughlin to suggest to Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel that the vocational education options for inmates in state correctional institutions be expanded to include firefighter training.
“A cost-effective way to address community volunteer department staffing and training issues would be to train individuals serving sentences in our state prisons,” Laughlin said. “The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections already provides several vocational training programs to provide prisoners with marketable job skills so they are more employable upon release. I want to stress that under my proposal this training would only be available for non-violent offenders and there would be no obligation for any fire department to take on a course graduate. That said, I have no doubt that most volunteer companies would more than welcome these newly-minted firefighters into their ranks and that would benefit us all.”
Speaking during a Senate Appropriations Committee budget hearing with the Department of Corrections, Wetzel announced that his department is establishing the training program with the State Fire Academy. “Based on our partnership and your prodding and pushing, we are piloting a volunteer firefighter training program at SCI Huntingdon, which is adjacent to the Lewistown fire training center,” Wetzel told Laughlin. “One of the exciting parts of the program is we are working with the Department of Health to get them EMT certifications at the same time.”
Pennsylvania’s fire companies have seen a steady dwindling of the ranks of volunteers. There were about 300,000 volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania in the 1970s. Today, that number has dropped to about 50,000. That’s a reduction of more than 80 %.