By Stephen Smoot
Both the West Virginia House of Delegates and the State Senate have introduced bills to address problems facing volunteer first responder units. Local officials, however, say that they do not go far enough to address fundamental needs.
Some bills do not address the major problems while others are seen as unsustainable because the state lacks the resources to pay for them.
Senate Bill 29, for example, would ensure that “any increased costs or expenditures to volunteer fire departments that result from the implementation of a state legislative rule shall be funded respectively by the State Fire Commission and the Commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health.” This means that, if passed, the bill forbids that the cost of state mandates relating to volunteer fire departments cannot be passed on to those departments or local government.
Regarding SB 29, Gillespie added that “it needs to be modified to include all fire and EMS.” Additionally, “the state should not feel free to hand down new burdens on county fire and EMS entities without funding those new requirements if/when they come at an increased cost.”
Meanwhile, House Bill 2879 mandates a 10% pay raise for all EMT workers within the state on July 1 of this year.
Another proposed piece of legislation, House Bill 3027, proposes to remove the requirement that EMTs meet nationally required standards.
According to Mike Alt of Upper Tract Volunteer Fire Department, legislators have “thrown out six to eight distraction bills.” He includes SB 29 and HB 2879 as examples. He explains that “they are distractions because they will never get off the table.” Alt fears that the Legislature will put most of the focus on tax reform and reorganization of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. As a potential result, volunteer first responders may not get the attention that they deserve for the problems they have.
Additionally, as Alt explains, the state cannot afford at this time to offer an across the board pay hike to all EMTs.
Other states, Alt says, have specific provisions in their tax laws to support emergency services. They may pull from personal property taxes, vehicle registrations, or some other source. He adds that Senate Bill 429 could help to provide a dedicated source of funding, that could help counties like Pocahontas or Pendleton. The bill, if passed, would require “county commissions to impose a Health and Safety Fee of $1.00 per day or activity per person for tourism and recreational activities.” Alt says that this could especially help counties with established and expanding tourism industries.
Alt says that although additional funds would help, the real problem is manpower. Gillespie agrees, adding that “the ‘canary in the coal mine’ warning is before us. For those of us willing to see/hear those warnings, it is apparent that we are headed toward a collapse of services due to a lack of personnel.” He adds that the “EMS is in more severe shape than most of the volunteer fire departments, but all are seeing declines in personnel on a historical basis. The faithful few volunteers are doing all they can.”
“We also need people to put boots on the ground,” Alt said. “The workforce to sustain it is just not there.”
A bill that could expand the workforce also earned Alt’s concern. House Bill 3027 would remove “the need for volunteer first responders to the requirement for emergency medical technicians (“EMTs”) to be nationally certified.” The bill would replace those standards with those set by the state.
Alt shared worries that some applicants “don’t even have a high school diploma or even read and write,” and worries that reduced standards could mean reduced performance.