“When a call comes to 911 for a fire, car wreck or heart attack, West Virginia’s first responders do whatever it takes to save lives and property. Nights, weekends, holidays, rain and snow, ambulance agencies and fire departments answer the call.
“But emergency response in our communities is being increasingly placed at risk by rising costs, inadequate funding and a shortage of trained personnel.”
These are the opening lines of a letter to Gov. Jim Justice signed by more than 200 fire and EMS agencies in the state asking him to allow lawmakers to discuss a bill that would provide crucial funding to first responder agencies during an expected special legislative session in August.
Earlier this year House Bill 3153 was brought before the West Virginia Legislature and would have provided the needed funding – around $12 million annually split between EMS agencies and fire departments. The bill died during the last hour of the regular session due to unresolved differences over details in the legislation between the House and Senate.
Since then, legislators have continued discussions with EMS and fire agencies and an interim committee has developed a compromise bill, which they are requesting be placed on the special session call. They are also asking Justice to consider providing a portion of the budget surplus to help the struggling agencies until the proposed legislation takes effect in 2024, should it be passed.
Fire and EMS agency leaders are stressing the urgency of the matter to ensure they are able to continue to provide timely responses in rural areas.
“EMS personnel have to be ready 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, including holidays,” said Chris Hall, executive director of the West Virginia EMS Coalition. “Round-the-clock preparedness comes at a cost. West Virginia is the only state in our region where lawmakers haven’t dedicated a permanent funding source to aid EMS. This lack of financial support is contributing to a growing number of closures and longer response times in many communities.”
Fire departments throughout the state are not faring much better. According to G.T. Parsons, who serves as president of the West Virginia State Fireman’s Association, there are only 11 communities in the state that support full-time paid fire departments and 21 partly paid fire departments that still depend on volunteers.
The remainder of the state’s more than 400 fire departments depend on volunteers and community support. About 85% of the state’s population relies on volunteer or part-volunteer fire departments, Parsons said.
“Volunteer fire departments can no longer depend on ice cream socials and bingo to pay their bills,” Parsons said. “West Virginia volunteer firefighters urge state leaders – our governor, legislature and state fire marshal – to work together with VFDs to find a solution. Realizing growth in tax revenue, the state appears positioned to support emergency organizations that are essential to the health of our communities, citizens and businesses.”
A total of 211 first responder organizations signed the letter asking the governor to add the measure to the anticipated special session. Since then, additional agencies and departments have joined the initiative bringing the number to 225 organizations as of Friday.
Several EMS and ambulance organizations serving Monongalia and Preston counties have signed the letter, including Mon EMS, KAMP Central Ambulance, Jan-Care Ambulance Service, Bruceton Community Ambulance Service and Terra Alta Community Ambulance Squad Inc.
Over a dozen volunteer fire departments in the area have joined, including Albright, Blacksville, Bruceton-Brandonville, Cool Springs, Granville, Masontown, Newburg, Reedsville, River Road, Rowlesburg, Terra Alta, Tunnelton and Wadestown.
Masontown VFD Chief Dan Luzier said one of the reasons his department signed on was because of its need for various equipment, which adds up quickly.
“All our air packs, for instance, for the whole department right now are dead. So, we got a price for new ones and it’s like $150,000 just to replace those,” Luzier said. “It’s just a lot of money.”
Masontown, like the majority of departments in the area, operates on an all-volunteer basis and is not paid for its service. Funding for volunteer departments typically comes from fundraisers and local government levies, but as Parsons said, those fundraisers are not enough to pay the bills anymore.
Luzier said replacing something like a fire engine can cost $750,000 to $1 million. “You have to find a way to fund that to get it done, you know, you just have to find a way to do it,” he said.
Masontown VFD also has a Swift Water Rescue Team that is listed on the national registry and can be called anywhere in West Virginia and even across the United States for floods, water rescues and other disasters.
“We have to stay up-to-date on our equipment and, you know, it takes a lot of money for that,” Luzier said. “Anything that goes through [the legislature] that can help us is greatly appreciated. Anything that they can do is a big help.”
Should the revised bill not be passed during the special session, Luzier said his department will “just have to keep plugging along,” but he hopes legislators can see the importance of providing funding for fire and EMS.
“What a service we provide to our area and it’s so important that we are able to keep going,” he said. “You know, it’s very, very important. Anything they can do to help us helps the community.”
In the letter to Justice, the first responders asked the governor to respond to their call for emergency assistance just as they do for the calls from the citizens of West Virginia.
“When West Virginians experience life- and property-threatening emergencies, they can’t wait for help. Every minute is precious,” the letter states. “Likewise, EMS agencies and fire departments cannot wait long for the help needed to survive this existential emergency. That means not delaying action until the next legislative session in January but calling legislators into special session this summer.”
The letter concludes, “Fire and EMS always answer the call when needed. We hope that we can count on a similar response from you in our time of need.”
The West Virginia Legislature is scheduled to be in Charleston Aug. 6-8 for interim committee meetings. Justice has stated he anticipates calling a special session at that time.