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November 2, 2013

Turnpike reimbursing firefighters

HARRISBURG — When volunteer fire companies respond to traffic accidents on Interstate 80, Interstate 79 or any other state highway, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation does not compensate the firefighters for their time. But when fire companies are summoned to crashes on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, they get paid for their trouble.

The amount for each incident is modest. In many cases, it’s just $250. But collectively, the cost adds up. In the last two years, the turnpike has paid out $579,201 to volunteer fire companies, records provided to the newspaper show.

The turnpike is awash in debt because it continues to make payments to PennDOT, stemming from the foiled deal to toll I-80.

Since Act 44, which included the provision for tolling on I-80, the turnpike commission has transferred almost $3.9 billion to PennDOT and will continue to make annual disbursements of $450 million.

Those payments would be phased out if the Legislature passes Senate Bill 1, the transportation funding plan that would use an increase in gas tax and registration fees to pay for road and bridge repairs.

As it stands now, the turnpike plans to raise tolls for cash customers 12 percent in January. This increase will be the sixth toll increase implemented after the passage of Act 44.

Turnpike spokesman Carl Defebo said that because the system is toll-based, turnpike officials feel an obligation provide upgraded service.

That’s why the turnpike has service plazas. It also has special arrangements in which the turnpike provides pass keys to towing operators in exchange for a pledge to meet specific response time requirements. And it’s also why the turnpike has made these little-known special arrangements with 102 fire companies along the turnpike.

In addition, the turnpike operates its own emergency operation center to dispatch tow trucks and fire companies when needed. The firetrucks are provided keys to bypass tolling plazas and typically the stations are located close to turnpike entrances, Defebo said.

Fire companies get paid a flat fee, regardless of how long the incident response takes, Defebo said.

There are times when passing motorists have called 911 after seeing an overheated vehicle along the road, said North Beaver Township Fire Chief Paul Henry.

Henry said no one else pays his fire company for responding to emergencies, adding the partnership with the turnpike brings access to additional training.

Henry’s fire company is not summoned to many accidents, he noted. The stretch of I-376 it covers does not have the volume of traffic seen on other parts of the turnpike system.

North Beaver was summoned eight times in the 18-month period of 2012 and the first six months of 2013. For that, the fire company was paid $2,575.

Over the same period, five Somerset County fire companies were called to the turnpike 121 times and paid $31,000.

The Harmonville Fire Co. in Montgomery County was summoned more than any other fire company — 151 times — and paid $36,269.

The cost is well worth the price, Defebo said.

“These relationships have evolved to be mutually beneficial,” he pointed out. “This type of relationship works because of the uniqueness and closed nature of the turnpike.”

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)

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