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Supporting our volunteer heroes

In the wake of natural disasters across the country, we’re reminded of our firefighters, police officers, and emergency workers and their steadfast service. When our communities are at their most vulnerable, these brave men and women risk their own lives to protect our families. The significance of that sacrifice cannot be overstated.

During these times, we’re especially mindful of our volunteer firefighters who comprise a substantial portion of our emergency response network. According to the United States Fire Administration, 74.9 percent of Indiana’s fire departments are fully staffed by volunteer firefighters, and in 13.8 percent of our fire departments, more than half of the firefighters are volunteers. For comparison, 69 percent of all fire departments in the U.S. have only volunteer firefighters.

Many of our volunteer fire departments serve less populous or rural communities that typically do not have the resources to support a career fire department. Because of that, recruiting and retaining emergency responders is absolutely vital to protecting these communities.

However, the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) found that the number of volunteer firefighters has decreased by 18 percent over the past few years. At the same time, the average age of these members has increased, meaning that many of these departments are finding it difficult to attract young volunteers. According to the NVFC, this is often due to increased time demands, training requirements, commuting distances, and the prevalence of two-income households in the U.S.

In the long-run, this trend could have a considerable, potentially negative impact on Indiana’s smaller communities. Many of our lawmakers understood this risk, which is why they introduced legislation this session to address the challenges facing volunteer firefighters. While these bills did not advance to final passage, they raise important concerns and questions about how to best support our volunteers.

House Bill 1301 would have extended disability benefits to volunteer public servants who suffered an illness or injury or died while performing their duties. This would have been a major advancement in financially supporting our volunteer firefighters as they protect our communities. Additionally, the legislation could have encouraged more people to volunteer, giving them the peace of mind that they would be cared for in the event of an accident.

A second bill – Senate Bill 321 – would have permitted a volunteer firefighter to hold an elected office in the area he or she works. Through this legislation, public servants would not have to choose between two roles and could serve their communities in both ways. That could encourage more officials to volunteer and boost the support for local fire departments.

After these bills failed to advance, Senate Resolution 70 passed the Senate, urging a future legislative study on volunteer firefighters. Under this study, a committee would address the issue of these responders holding elected office as well as funding and training for volunteer fire departments.

I also believe that it’s necessary to discuss the federal government and Department of Homeland Security’s ever-increasing number of training requirements for our firefighters. Many recruits cannot meet the financial obligation that comes with these prerequisites, discouraging some from becoming firefighters at all. Addressing these issues is crucial to developing emergency response teams in our communities and attracting more individuals to serve.

As a co-author of SR 70, I understand that this topic of concern will not disappear. Even if this issue is not discussed over the summer, it’s my hope that the General Assembly will take steps toward supporting our volunteer heroes and ensuring they have the resources they need to serve our communities.