More than 200 fire departments and EMS agencies throughout West Virginia have joined together to ask Gov. Jim Justice to include a bill intended to help stabilize local emergency services on the call for the upcoming special session.
Members of the West Virginia EMS Coalition and the West Virginia State Firemen’s Association have individually signed a letter to the governor asking him to allow lawmakers to act during the planned August special legislative session. The proposed bill will provide vital funding to support fire departments and ambulance agencies that save lives and property when medical emergencies, fires and car wrecks occur.
Action is necessary during the special session to ensure availability of timely ambulance response in rural areas, said Chris Hall, executive director of the West Virginia EMS Coalition.
“EMS personnel have to be ready 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year including holidays,” Hall said. “Round-the-clock preparedness comes at a cost. West Virginia is the only state in our region where lawmakers haven’t dedicated a permanent funding source to aid EMS. This lack of financial support is contributing to a growing number of closures and longer response times in many communities.”
About 85% of the state’s 1.79 million citizens depend on more than 400 volunteer or part-volunteer fire departments, said Romney Fire Chief G.T. Parsons, who serves as President of the West Virginia State Firemen’s Association.
Only 11 West Virginia communities support full-time paid fire departments; 21 partly paid departments depend on volunteers. The rest of the state’s more than 400 fire departments depend on volunteers and support from their communities, Parsons said.
“Volunteer fire departments can no longer depend on ice cream socials and bingo to pay their bills,” Parsons said. “West Virginia volunteer firefighters urge state leaders – our governor, legislature, and state fire marshal – to work together with VFDs to find a solution. Realizing growth in tax revenue, the state appears positioned to support emergency organizations that are essential to the health of our communities, citizens, and businesses.”
The West Virginia Legislature is scheduled to be in Charleston between Aug. 6 and 8 for interim committee meetings. The governor has told media outlets that he anticipates calling the Senate and House of Delegates into a special session while in Charleston to consider appropriations and other bills.
Fire departments and EMS agencies are counting on the governor and legislature to finish a compromise on a bill that died during the last night of the 2023 Regular Legislative Session.
The bill, House Bill 3153, would have annually split about $12 million in funding between EMS agencies and fire departments.
The legislation had broad support from lawmakers with the House of Delegates passing the bill 82-11 and the Senate voting 33-0 to support the measure, but the bill died when lawmakers could not resolve differences involving amendments to the bill in the final hours.
Since then, members of both the West Virginia EMS Coalition and the West Virginia State Firemen’s Association have been encouraged by legislative action to keep the measure alive.
In May, members of the Joint Committee on Volunteer Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services adopted a motion to send an agreed upon version of HB 3153 to Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and have them recommend the bill for a special legislative session call by Gov. Justice.
In the letter sent to the governor, 211 first responder organizations are asking Gov. Justice to add the measure to his anticipated call for a special legislative session. Additional agencies and departments have since joined the initiative.
“When West Virginians experience life and property threatening emergencies, they can’t wait for help. Every minute is precious,” first responders state in the letter sent to the governor Tuesday. “Likewise, EMS agencies and fire departments cannot wait long for the help needed to survive this existential emergency. That means not delaying action until the next legislative session in January but calling legislators into special session this summer.”