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 %.

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There will be countless people who oppose this suggestion. These are the same folks who constantly argue about funding for additional personnel or equipment. I had the opportunity to be involved with a youth offender (16+) program where NON-VIOLENT young men (the 1970’s) were afforded the opportunity to be trained as EMTs and FFs. I admit I was a little skeptical at the time but I was proven wrong. At first they spent 6 hour stints with in our station. As time passed they would spend 24 hrs. with us running calls, eating, sleeping and participating in the camaraderie that exists in the Fire Service. My take away was most of them had come from homes where there was little or no supervision and had never received any positive reinforcement. One of the participants rose through the ranks to become Deputy Fire Chief. This program is no different than teaching trades in prison and could help towns with ever shrinking ranks of Volunteers. Unless creative action is taken, there may come a time where if you are having a cardiac arrest or fire, no one will come or it will be too late.

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