Burns rallies support for PHEAA scholarships for volunteers while participating in Cambria County Fire School

PATTON, April 24 – The Volunteer Recruitment Service Scholarship Act proposed by state Rep. Frank Burns to help boost sagging membership in the unpaid emergency services field took center stage during a noon news conference yesterday at the Cambria County Fire School.

Before suiting up to engage in scheduled afternoon training sessions with firefighters, Burns, D-Cambria, outlined the merits of his H.B. 48, which would provide state scholarships to fire company, ambulance service and rescue squad volunteers.

Burns said he drafted the bill with a two-fold mission: as a means to allow emergency services to attract and retain volunteers, and as a way to help young people defray the cost of higher education while introducing them to important community service.

“We are all aware of the serious manpower shortages facing, in particular, the volunteer fire departments that have served our communities so well for so long,” Burns said. “The situation is reaching crisis proportions, and I believe that offering Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency scholarships to volunteers is one way to think outside the box to solve this problem.”

Under Burns’ bill, recipients would be required to be a member of a volunteer organization for at least six months and maintain active volunteer status, have graduated from high school or have received a high school equivalency diploma.

They would also have to enroll in a degree-producing curriculum at an institution of higher education within a 50-mile radius of the volunteer organization (or if none exists, the next-closest institution), be a legal resident of the commonwealth, maintain a minimum 2.0 grade-point average, and apply for all federal, state or other education grant aid at the time of enrollment.

"Firefighting, ambulance service and rescue squad volunteers perform valuable work at no added cost to taxpayers, and are some of the bravest and unselfish citizens of our commonwealth," Burns said. "My legislation is a way to say ‘thank you,’ while helping these vital organizations recruit and keep new members." 

John Hawksworth, Cambria County Fire School chairman, said Burns’ proposal provides an inducement for young people to get involved as fire department volunteers – and hopefully would have the added benefit of helping them train for jobs that would enable them to remain in their communities.

“Our numbers are dwindling and have probably dropped in half; it seems like we’ve lost a whole generation. It’s getting tough to recruit the new people and keep them on board,” Hawksworth said. “Frank’s doing that job, trying to get to these high schools kids (to join). It could be a big thing.”

Although he could not attend due to a prior teaching commitment, Richard Erculiani, emergency services instructor at Greater Altoona Career & Technology Center and an early supporter of Burns’ bill, issued a statement of support for Burns’ effort.

“Speaking for career and technology educators, our goal is to prepare our youth to be high-contributing members of society – and this proposed legislation enables just that to happen,” Erculiani said. “As many families in Appalachia are economically disadvantaged, a scholarship is many times the only means for a student to attend a post-secondary education system.”

House Bill 48 currently awaits action by the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, which Burns hopes will occur soon.

NEWS EDITORS/ASSIGNMENT DESKS: A video clip of the event is available here, and print-quality photographs can be downloaded here.