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In Pennsylvania elections, there’s usually at least one ballot question about some government spending or bureaucratic process that is bound to make the eyes gloss over on first read.

For the 2021 May primary, it’s a statewide referendum titled “Making municipal fire and emergency medical services companies eligible for loans.”

The ballot question is long and serpentine. But it’s important: your vote could impact the continued existence of firehouses and ambulances across the commonwealth.

What you’ll see on the ballot

Do you favor expanding the use of the indebtedness authorized under the referendum for loans to volunteer fire companies, volunteer ambulance services and volunteer rescue squads under 35 PA.C.S. §7378.1 (related to referendum for additional indebtedness) to include loans to municipal fire departments or companies that provide services through paid personnel and emergency medical services companies for the purpose of establishing and modernizing facilities to house apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, and for purchasing apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, protective and communications equipment and any other accessory equipment necessary for the proper performance of the duties of the fire companies and emergency medical services companies?

What it means

Pennsylvania generally has two types of fire companies and emergency medical service providers: municipal-run outfits with paid personnel (like Philadelphia), and volunteer-run organizations.

State lawmakers say municipal fire departments and EMS companies need to update their facilities (think firehouses) and equipment (think firetrucks or ambulances), but local budgets aren’t strong enough to pay for improvements up front — and loans aren’t readily accessible.

As it stands, Pa. law only allows volunteer fire and EMS companies to apply for money through a state-run loan program.

Read about the other May 18 ballot questions:

?️ Visit the Billy Penn procrastinator’s guide to all the candidates

Established in 1976, the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program has authorized nearly $500 million in loans for volunteer emergency service providers, with a fixed interest rate of 2%.

Voting “yes” on this referendum means you support making paid fire and emergency medical service companies l eligible for the loans, in addition to volunteer orgs.

A “no” vote would keep Pa.’s loan program available only to volunteer departments. According to the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, changing the requirements could increase the pool of applicants, vying for a fixed amount of funds.

This bill does not expand the amount of eligible money in the loan fund.

Who’s for it (and against it)


  • Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature unanimously supported the measure.
  • The Pennsylvania Fire Emergency Services
  • Pennsylvania Career Fire Chiefs Association


  • We couldn’t find any opposition parties.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...