By Matt Young, WV Press Association
A previously failed plan for volunteer fire departments and emergency medical service providers to receive additional financial support may be getting new life.
HB 3153, which died during the most recent Legislative Session, was a primary topic of discussion during Tuesday’s meeting of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Volunteer Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services.
Committee Counsel Phillip Childs explained the bill.
“The main purpose of this bill is to clear up some code conflicts,” Childs said. “The other part is it increases a surcharge that is currently on all casualty insurance policies of 0.55%, to one-percent. That 0.45% increase, half of it would go to the Fire Protection Fund, and half would go to the EMS Fund.”
At the conclusion of Childs’ summary, Committee Chair Sen. Vince Deeds, R-Greenbrier, requested a more in-depth explanation as to the costs associated with the surcharge increase.
“It (surcharge) brings in upwards of ballpark $12.5 million, I believe, that would be eligible to be received by all of these volunteer fire departments,” Childs replied. “It’s believed, when you spread it out per household, we’re looking at, at most, $20 a year. That’s about what it would cost households, but to the benefit of upwards of $13 million.”
Childs added that because casualty insurance is a constant, this would be a consistent and sustainable source of revenue.
At the end of discussion, Deeds advised the committee that he wants a “working document ready to go” should Gov. Jim Justice call for a Special Legislative Session during the summer months.
Next before the committee was a presentation from President and Chairman of the W.Va. State Fire Chiefs Association Randy James, regarding recruitment and retention, workman’s compensation, and mental health.
“I’m going to be straight-up honest with you,” James began. “After the last day of the 2023 Legislative Session, there was a lot of heartburn and disappointment coming from the fire service in West Virginia. I was asked, ‘Do we need to continue coming to the Capitol and lobbying for increased funding for departments and companies? Not just for the ones that do a lot of runs or have the biggest populations.’”
“It was very disappointing,” James continued. “It seemed like we tried to jump through all the hoops and accommodate all the requests and provide information, and educate folks on what we do and what it takes to do it. It seems that every year we go through the same 60-day process, and then, at the last day or the last hour, certain lobbies don’t want us to have certain funding from some sources.”
“Some of my constituents have asked me why I continue to travel to Charleston if the end product is always going to be the same,” James added. “I always say, ‘Well, there’s a tax increase that people don’t want, or there’s money that can come from a fund or it can’t come from a fund.’ But sometimes we’re just told, ‘We’ll see what we can do next year.’”
James stressed to the committee that inadequate funding translates into the loss of members.
“Nobody signs up to be a volunteer firefighter to sell hot dogs,” James said.
At the conclusion of James’ remarks, Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, said, “I feel your pain. Don’t give up the ship. Keep coming back. I think we’ll solve this this year.”
Del. Mike Honaker, R-Greenbrier, said, “This is one of two crisis-issues that we failed to deal with.”
“I want to apologize to the Department of Corrections, and I want to apologize to the volunteer fire departments and EMS for our inaction,” Honaker added. “We’re at a place where talk is cheap and we need to act.”
The final item on the committee’s agenda was a presentation pertaining to mental health from Jody Ratliff, director of DHHR’s Office of Emergency Medical Services.
“When I was a young medic in Monroe County, had a car wreck one night,” Ratliff told the committee as part of his explanation why fire and EMS personnel are in need of mental health services. “Four kids were in the car: one dead on the scene, one alive, one barely breathing. The other one was the interesting one.”
“We pulled one (child) out, and I intubated on the side of the road, put her in the truck, and went back to the others,” Ratliff continued. “(Another paramedic) was with me. She was holding [another] kid’s head through the back of the car, and I was crawling through the seat. She said, ‘Jody, intubate him.’ I said to put his head down. She asked why, and I said, ‘He’s’ dead, put his head down.’ He was almost decapitated.”
“That’s one story,” Ratliff added. “There’s a reason why I wake up at two or three in the morning every night. We’re trying to find ways to keep people in EMS and fire departments. We talk about money and we talk about pensions. What we don’t talk about is mental health.”
The Joint Committee on Volunteer Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services will next meet during May’s Interim Legislative Session in Huntington.
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