Our Opinion: Legalize boot drives for volunteer fire departments, but don’t stop there

Those roadside “boot drive” and “canning” fundraisers conducted by certain volunteer firefighters and emergency responders could soon be legalized, but is the move too little too late?

Volunteers scrambling to keep their companies afloat in Northeastern Pennsylvania have tried all kinds of mail solicitations and special events, including standing at intersections essentially begging motorists for bucks. Trouble is, the latter activity is banned in the Keystone State.

Law enforcement officials seemingly look the other way in most cases, as evidenced by the large number of Penn State students seen annually aside area streets while canvassing for cash to help battle childhood cancer. Yet authorities have been known to crack down on good-hearted collegians as well as community-minded firefighters. Earlier this fall, for instance, state police cited two members of the Shickshinny Volunteer Fire Department who were positioned by a Route 11 intersection to capitalize on its higher traffic volume during Bloomsburg Fair week. The firefighters are expected to have their day in court on Dec. 1.

In the meantime, a state Senate committee this month approved an exemption in the law specifically for first responders. (Sorry, college students.) It would permit them to collect money, with prior written approval, at “controlled intersections” – those outfitted with either stop signs or signal lights. Approved by the Senate’s Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, the proposal now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

If adopted, the legislation might allow volunteer firefighters to breathe easier during future boot drives, knowing they’re not scofflaws.

But is the proposed legislation, known as House Bill 138, only a drop in the bucket?

Firefighters in our region, as with their comrades across the state, continue to see costs rise for emergency equipment and vehicles, with some fire trucks costing around a quarter-million dollars. You could stuff a boot with a whole bunch of bills and still not afford that purchase, or even make the loan payments.

Many crews have ably persevered, supported by government grants and generous community residents or benefiting from wildly popular events. Even so, is it fair for the public to continue to expect a declining number of volunteers to not only train for and respond to crises, but also to plan and execute chicken barbecues, bingo nights, haunted houses and a host of other quirky fundraisers?

Boot drives hardly seem a legitimate, long-term solution. After all, is it wise for anyone, even a firefighter in a highly visible outfit, to stand by a street, dashing toward open car windows to pluck bills or coins from an extended hand? Would you want to do it?

Considering how essential fire companies are to public safety, our communities should rally around them in meaningful and sustainable ways, not simply toss them spare change.