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Fire, EMS reps make case to restore funds

SoVaNow.com / January 30, 2013
Rising gas and equipment costs — coupled with declines in state funding — have put some local volunteer fire departments at risk of closing their doors. While Clarksville’s volunteer fire department has no such plans, it faces tough choices, such as whether to replace aging turnout gear or buy a new truck.

Walt Bailey, President of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association, is leading a crusade to restore over $13 million in state monies siphoned off from local fire and EMS budgets.

While the cost of outfitting fire departments has been rising for years, the financial outlook grew worse three years ago when the Governor and General Assembly took away two revenue streams previously earmarked for fire department programs and equipment.

Initially, the money was used to balance the state budget. Now, however, the money is just one more revenue stream going to law enforcement, which already receives $2.2 billion in state funds.

With the stroke of a pen, firefighters and emergency squads lost over $13 million in funding, money that was used to help defray training and equipment costs. Legislators redirected $1.25 million in insurance payments to the general fund, and $12 million, which comes from license plate renewal fees, was turned over to the state police.

Meantime, fundraising by local departments has fallen 40 percent, a reflection of the weak economy, Bailey said. Costs stemming from new state mandates also are on the rise, said Bailey — pointing to one mandate that requires departments to change their turnout gear every ten years at a cost of $3,000 per person. Another law has required ambulances to install expensive laptops and software for paperless reporting to hospitals and medical facilities.

“Did you know you are 87 percent more likely to be saved by a firefighter than a police officer?” Bailey asked, by way of explaining his drive to restore those state funds previously designated for fire protection. He added, “Ten years ago, 88 percent of the communities in Virginia were protected by volunteer firefighters. Today that number is 68 percent.

“If Clarksville lost their volunteer fire department, they would have to pay over $1 million for minimum coverage. The U.S. Department of Labor says the average volunteer saves a locality $45,000 per year.”

Bailey says he is not blaming law enforcement for the financial plight that fire departments face. He also does not want to see money taken from them: “We need to learn from law enforcement agencies, who long ago figured out how to set an agenda and band together when it came to asking for monies from the state. That is why all $2.2 billion of the state budget designated for public safety goes to law enforcement, and EMS and firefighters get nothing. We (EMS and firefighters) are part of public safety, we make up two-thirds of the agencies classified under public safety.”

Both Debbie Osborne of the Mecklenburg County Lifesaving and Rescue Squad and Richard Elliott, president of the Clarksville Volunteer Fire Department, note that their departments have been in a financial pinch for several years. Fifteen years ago, the cost of a fully outfitted fire truck was $100,000. Today the average cost is $300,000. The cost of ambulances, have similarly increased — what cost $60,000 fifteen years ago, now exceeds $200,000.

In addition to rising equipment prices, Osborne and Elliott say new technology, insurance, and procedures to meet new mandates for firefighting and rescue operations aren’t cheap either. Training requirements leave little time for fundraising, and regulations dictating the type of equipment and its useful life mean the ability to outfit a squad or fire department with home-built equipment are long gone.

Compounding these problems is the lack of people wanting to volunteer at local departments. Particularly hard hit are the EMS ranks; more and more are filling their ranks with paid staff.

There is a nationwide decline in volunteers for fire departments and rescue squads. Osborne attributes the trend in part to the economy and in part to a younger generation unwilling to donate their time. “People have to support families on one or two jobs instead of volunteering, and so many of our volunteers are getting older and we have younger people who are not volunteering.”

Bailey believes there is another reason for this decline in volunteering here in Virginia — again financially related. In the past, if a firefighter or squad member was killed in the line of duty, his family received a death benefit and his children received an educational benefit. In the 1980s and 1990s, localities could not afford those benefits so they were picked up by the state under a provision called line of duty. Two years ago, the cost of line of duty benefits were “pushed off to the localities. VACO [Virginia Association of Counties] insurance was cheaper but also offered fewer benefits. 70 percent of the localities opted out of line of duty.”

Virginia has a long and proud history of volunteer organizations protecting its citizens, said Bailey. “We want to do everything in our power to preserve that tradition. If financial and personnel troubles force a department to cut back on service or close altogether, local residents will ultimately pay the price, in higher insurance rates or higher taxes as localities replace volunteer departments with paid staff.

“We are only asking for $12 million from Virginia’s budget, it’s not new money, it will just get us back to zero,” Bailey said, adding that these volunteer firefighters and rescue squad members “are some of the hardest working and most dedicated people out there. They deserve this money and the support of their legislators.”

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