West Virginians are accustomed to relying on friends and neighbors during times of need. Our state’s volunteer fire departments — made up of those friends and neighbors — provide a reliable safety net for communities across the state.
That safety net, however, is unraveling. Too many volunteer departments, strained financially, are running out of volunteers.
The West Virginia State Firemen’s Association supports Senate Bill 420. If passed and signed by the governor, the bill would increase funding to volunteer and part-volunteer fire departments by modifying the surcharge on taxable fire insurance premiums from .55% to 1%.
Facts are facts: Several volunteer fire departments have closed their doors during the past 13 years. The consequences are troubling. Families and businesses are losing access to emergency services and fire protection. After a station closes, the nearest fire department to a home or business may be 25 miles away — not five miles away. Response times inevitably increase, and those additional minutes can mean the difference between life and death.
With volunteer recruitment and retention becoming more challenging each year, we are likely to see additional volunteer departments close. Those closures put additional stress on the remaining departments, which must expand their service areas and make certain they have adequate personnel to respond in a timely, professional manner.
Senate Bill 420 identifies a logical source of revenue — a fire insurance policy surcharge. With local fire departments closing and emergency services waning as a result, home and business owners will see increases in their fire insurance rates. Insurance companies recognize the connection between the quality and proximity of emergency service and the risk that homeowners and businesses face.
Given that reality, strengthening West Virginia’s volunteer fire departments is prudent for both public safety reasons and financial reasons.
Our citizens see their local firefighters hold hot dog sales and raffles to raise money to support volunteer departments. Equipment, fuel, and training are expensive, but the most critical element of every fire department is people. We must recruit and retain volunteers who will sacrifice their time and accept the risks associated with providing critical emergency services. Their commitment makes our communities stronger.
Volunteer fire departments play a critical role in scores of West Virginia communities. Our citizens know our volunteers and trust them. Our VFDs have rich traditions in supporting the quality of life in our communities, but we cannot take them for granted.
This is not a new problem. It is a problem that has reached a critical stage. We believe the people of West Virginia have a keen interest in ensuring the success of their local VFDs. By working with the Legislature, we can address this chronic problem and allow our communities to continue to rely on local emergency services.
G.T. Parsons of Romney is president of the West Virginia State Firemen’s Association.