Volunteer Pa. fire companies struggle after both in-person fundraisers, online raffles shut down
A recently-introduced bill aims to allow fire companies to continue online raffles, after some companies were informed their raffles went against state rules
LLEWELLYN, Pa. — When volunteer firefighters aren’t protecting their communities, they’re often hosting dinners, throwing carnivals, running raffles and playing Bingo.
Sure, it’s fun, but that’s what they have to do to keep the lights on. And to keep their fire engines running.
“A tremendous amount of fire companies across Pennsylvania rely on fundraising for their everyday operations,” said Jerry Ozog, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute.
Good Intent Hose Co. No. 1 in Llewellyn is no different. At first, it looked like 2020 was going to be a gangbusters year of fundraising for them. In March, they had their annual raffle auction, which fire company PIO Paul Kennedy said accounts for 10 to 15 percent of their fundraising budget in a normal year.
“That was the last one we were able to do,” Kennedy said. “That’s a significant number, and we were able to get that in the books.”
It’s a good thing, too, because days later, the coronavirus pandemic put the kibosh on in-person gatherings.
Since most of their budget is covered through fundraising — all those fun-filled gatherings for dinners, games and events — the limitations on public gatherings had a big impact on the bottom line for Pennsylvania’s fire companies. And veterans’ groups. And many other non-profits out there.
Officials at Good Intent came up with a few good ideas to make ends meet, Kennedy said, which included online raffles. That was going well at first.
“It was a real game changer for us,” he said.
But it turns out, they were breaking state regulations and had to stop.
For now, anyway.
Good Intent was one of the many fire companies that tried online raffles.
It was going well until they were contacted by the state police or by their county treasurer’s offices, saying under their small-games-of-chance licenses, they were not permitted to accept credit or debit card payments.
That meant cash payments for raffles and pull-tab tickets, which was next to impossible with the elimination of in-person events.
Many fire departments were told if they continued to accept credit card payments for online raffles, they could lose their small-games-of-chance licenses, Ozog said.
There are more than 2,000 fire companies in Pennsylvania, ranging from large departments with paid firefighters, like Harrisburg, to the small, volunteer-run groups that rely primarily on fundraising, like Good Intent, which tend to be the departments that rely most heavily on fundraising.
Colonial Park Fire Company No. 1 Chief John Fogg said his suburban department is lucky in that they get support from their township and they do not rely quite as heavily on fundraising. They still run raffles on their Facebook page, but they only accept cash payments, which brings in far less revenue than they would collect if they could accept credit cards.
They are in a position where they can do that. Not everyone is so fortunate.
“Across the state, there are a lot of nonprofits that relied heavily on small games of chance,” he said.
With the lack of ways to raise money, it puts some fire companies in a potentially tough financial position.
“We’ve had some that say they haven’t been able to make a loan payment on firetruck,” Ozog said. “That is a troublesome sign when we see that occurring. They were living one fundraiser to the next, and when that source of income is cut off and they’re not able to pay their bills, that is a challenge.”
Many departments he’s talked to say they’ve had to take a bite out of their reserve funds, he said, which, down the road, could hurt with making major purchases, like new equipment and firetrucks.
That’s why he said he would support proposed legislation that would allow fire companies and similar volunteer organizations to collect funds for small games of chance via credit and debit card during the coronavirus pandemic.
But will that legislation happen soon?
Possible new legislation
Legislation was first introduced in the state House in August to allow fire companies and similar groups to accept credit card and debit card payments for small games of chance during the current emergency declaration.
Introduced by the late Rep. Mike Reese and Rep. Ryan Warner, the bill did not make it out of the Gaming Oversight Committee.
But on Jan. 27, Warner reintroduced the legislation as the prime sponsor.
“Many of these organizations have been negatively impacted, like so many businesses. One of their main sources of raising funds involved people gathering,” said Warner, a Republican who represents Fayette and Westmoreland counties. “What sparked this bill was some local organizations we knew of were announcing the winners of pull-tab games online. At some point, they were issued a letter from state police reminding them it was not legal to perform any of these games online at all, and that’s what prompted this bill.”
The new House Bill 290 has been referred to the House Gaming Oversight Committee. That bill can be found here.
The bill would amend the Small Games of Chance Act of 1988 to allow organizations like fire companies to accept debit and credit card payments for raffles and similar games of chance through online and social media platforms during the COVID-19 emergency declaration.
Ozog said he supports this bill and any efforts that would assist fire companies in their fundraising efforts.
If the bill does not go through, there are a few options, but they aren’t great. Ozog said fire companies can work with their local governments to assess a fire-protection tax. They can also seek help from the community by asking for additional donations. Some may have to cut deep into their reserves, or even reduce their operations.
And the pandemic continues
Though there is a coronavirus vaccine, there is no telling how much longer the pandemic will go on, or how much longer in-person gatherings will be limited.
Or how much longer fire companies can hold out.
Ozog said he hasn’t yet heard of any fire companies that are planning to close, but he knows many are struggling, and he’s aware of at least one township that was approached by a fire company that could not make a payment on a fire engine.
And it’s more than fire companies.
“It’s been a terrible struggle,” said Pennsylvania VFW Commander Ron Peters. “I have 430 VFWs across the state that can’t make a living when the doors are closed.”
Anything that would help VFWs stand up during the pandemic is welcome, he said.
“If it helps us, I’m good with it,” Peters added. “There are VFWs out there that were struggling before the pandemic set in last year, and some of them are not [going to] make it unless they find a way to get some financing.”
At Good Intent, Kennedy said they support this proposed legislation. The company has had to get creative after the raffles were taken away.
In April, they held a drive-thru food truck service, moving 5,000 cars through in six hours.
They’ve had take-out service from their kitchen and have tried a few other similar, socially distanced events, but they are pretty limited with what they can do.
“The online gaming option will give us an opportunity to make some of that money back,” Kennedy said. “Even with the rollout of vaccine, we’re still looking at several months before we can do in-person events like we used to.”
It is becoming a critical situation for the department, he said.
“We’re in real trouble if can’t get the online raffles up and running,” he said
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