Sanders Bill Supports Volunteer Firefighters and EMS

SHELBURNE, Vt., April 6 - Senator Bernie Sanders - joined by firefighters and leaders of Vermont's first responder community - announced today that he has introduced legislation to strengthen support for the thinning ranks of volunteer firefighters.

"Volunteer firefighting has been a tradition in our state and country since the beginning of America, but today for a variety of reasons that institution is in trouble," Sanders (I-Vt.) told a news conference at the volunteer fire department here.

The tradition of emergency responder volunteerism is "in danger of weakening and possibly even dying out," according to the Department of Homeland Security. Nationwide, the ranks of volunteer firefighters have dropped more than 10 percent from their peak in 1984.

Vermont's 5,600 volunteer firefighters and the nation's 800,000 volunteer firefighters and emergency medical service personnel "deserve our strong support," Sanders said. "I want the federal government to be a partner in community efforts to keep our volunteer fire departments fully staffed and ready to respond when needed."

Sanders called for federal assistance to community efforts to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters and other emergency responders. The legislation would direct the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to establish a program to provide matching funds to state and local governments, or nonprofit associations, in support of volunteer firefighter and EMS incentive programs. The federal government would provide half of the cost of the incentives, which could include retirement benefits, travel and training reimbursement, health insurance assistance, life insurance, tuition and school loan forgiveness, and property tax reductions.

"Some states and local governments already provide these incentives, but, unfortunately, many communities that rely on volunteer firefighters and emergency medical services personnel, particularly in rural and low-income areas, cannot afford these benefits," Sanders said. "This bill aims to support the best of what local fire companies want to do and what they know will work for them to attract and keep volunteers."

The Volunteer Firefighter and EMS Support Act of 2009 would let the Department of Homeland Security pay half of the cost of community recruitment and retention programs. The funding could go to state or local governments, or qualified non-profit organizations.

Sanders' bill includes oversight and accountability measures applying to local governments or non-profit entities that would receive assistance from the Department of Homeland Security, which would administer the program. The bill is strongly supported by the National Volunteer Fire Council and the American Ambulance Association.

Kristy Oxholm, president of the Vermont State Firefighters' Association, said the legislation "would go a long way toward allowing communities to recognize and reward the services of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers that serve their fellow citizens every day in this country."

Dean Gilmore, captain of the New Haven Volunteer Fire Department, said, "First, we applaud the dedication and continued commitment of Senator Sanders to work for the volunteer fire and EMS services in Vermont and throughout the country. This bill, if passed, would provide a tool for the local communities to offer incentives in retaining the volunteer fire and rescue personnel they have as well as recruiting new volunteers to help maintain the level of service the people need and expect."

Jim Finger, president of the American Ambulance Association, said, "Due to the large size of the service areas for EMS agencies, many of them do not have access to large labor pools and could not afford to provide high-quality care if it weren't for volunteers. This legislation would help correct this problem by allowing EMS agencies to provide volunteer medics with essential benefits such as health and life insurance, tuition forgiveness and retirement benefits to recruit and retain volunteers."

Bernard Dubois, chair of the Vermont State Firefighter Association's Recruitment and Retention Committee, said, "Volunteers are the backbone of small communities and rural areas.
Neighbor helping neighbor is the creed they live by.I applaud Senator Sanders effort on behalf of the volunteer emergency responders in our country in order that we can maintain our well trained volunteers"

Dan Manz, director of the Vermont EMS, said, "The Vermont Department of Health works to support the system of emergency medical services statewide as part of our public health mission. Attracting new volunteer recruits and keeping our experienced personnel is among the highest priorities in preserving access to EMS. I thank Senator Sanders for his recognition of the important contributions these volunteers make and support the legislation he is introducing to help states, communities and squads with recruitment and retention."

To see a copy of the bill, click here.