Last year at this time, partisan gridlock was preventing the advancement of much-needed legislation to benefit the volunteer fire and emergency services. I am very pleased to be able to report that 2012 has been an extremely successful year for the National Volunteer Fire Council on the legislative front.
In February, a top priority for NVFC was realized when Congress passed legislation allocating the D-Block radio spectrum to public safety for the purpose of building a nationwide broadband communications network.
The bill, which provided $7 billion along with a license to use the D-Block and adjacent public safety spectrum to build the network, was championed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who NVFC named its 2012 Legislator of the Year. While it will take several years to fully implement this legislation, once the broadband network is fully operational it will revolutionize the way public safety agencies communicate and use digital and electronic tools.
In December, the Senate passed three additional NVFC legislative priorities that, as of this writing, appear to be on the verge of being enacted as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. After nearly four years of hard work, a bill reauthorizing the Assistance to Firefighters Grant and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant programs looks to be on track to be signed into law before the end of the year.
The bill makes several important changes to the way the programs will be administered, including increasing the percentage of AFG funds guaranteed to volunteer fire departments. More importantly, by passing reauthorization legislation, Congress would renew its commitment to these critical programs in the midst of very difficult budgetary times.
The Senate version of NDAA also reauthorizes the U.S. Fire Administration and enacts the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Improvements Act. USFA provides training and education to emergency services personnel and the public and also performs research and collects fire service-specific data.
PSOBIA makes several important changes to the program, including clarifying that volunteer and career members of private, nonprofit EMS agencies qualify for benefits. It also makes public safety officers who suffer a fatal vascular rupture injury in the line of duty eligible for PSOB.
Although 2012 was remarkably successful in terms of getting legislation passed, a lot of work remains to be done both in Washington and across the country to help volunteer fire, EMS, and rescue agencies deal with the enormous challenges they are facing.
According the National Fire Protection Association statistics, the number of volunteer firefighters in the United States decreased for the fourth straight year to 756,400, the lowest number on record. In communities of 2,500 or fewer residents, which are served almost exclusively by volunteers, nearly 30 percent of firefighters are 50 or older and the number of firefighters under the age of 30 is down 26 percent since 2005.
Many communities are boosting retention and recruitment efforts by providing modest incentives to volunteer personnel to demonstrate that they are valued. Unfortunately, the IRS taxes these small benefits, which reduces their incentive value and creates administrative problems for small communities that do not have support staff to calculate withholding and process tax paperwork.
It appears unlikely at this time that Congress will address this issue before the end of the year but the 113th Congress is expected to take up tax reform legislation early next year designed to simplify the tax code and NVFC will be pushing for the inclusion of measures to make it easier for communities to provide volunteer benefits.
One of the biggest impediments to retention and recruitment are heightened professional qualifications standards, which leave prospective volunteers in the position of having to train on nights and weekends for months before they can respond to emergencies. While some might suggest lowering standards to make recruitment and retention easier, this is a false solution that merely trades one problem for another.
As Chairman of the NFPA Board, I am keenly aware of the importance of training standards in ensuring that emergency responders are safe and effective. What we should do is acknowledge the strain that increased training hours put on recruitment and retention and take positive steps to address it.
For starters, training needs to be accessible. That means making it available in different formats and locations, including online, so that emergency responders can train when and where it suits them. In 2012, NVFC offered a host of online training webinars focused on topics like recruitment and retention, leadership, grant writing, transitioning from a volunteer to combination department, rehab, health and safety and many others. Free recordings of these webinars can be downloaded at www.nvfc.org/training-education/courses.
It is also critical to engage people when they are young and have more time and interest in training. This year was the fifth anniversary of NVFC's National Junior Firefighter Program, which hosted two successful hands-on training events for junior firefighters and their program advisors in the fall.
The National Junior Firefighter Academy, sponsored by Tyco International, was offered at Scott Safety headquarters in Monroe, N.C., in September, and thanks to support from California Casualty and Spartan Motors, NVFC brought the academy to the Harrisburg (Pa.) Area Community College in November. In total, more than 150 individuals from six states participated.
Volunteer agencies can also take pressure off of their emergency personnel by building a force of non-operational volunteers to help with everything from fundraising to planning activities, retention and recruitment efforts, administrative tasks, program assessment, fire prevention education, and more. The NVFC's Fire Corps program gives local fire and EMS agencies the tools to establish or enhance community support and auxiliary programs, including by offering free training webinars through the Fire Corps Academy. Learn more at www.firecorps.org.
As we enter 2013, the challenges facing the volunteer emergency services require strong leadership. Times are changing and we need to adapt. NVFC is working to support volunteers, by advocating on their behalf in Washington and providing them with tools to help them get the job done at home. Learn about all of the NVFC’s efforts at www.nvfc.org.
By Philip C. Stittleburg, Chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council