Fire Coordinator Jimmy Porter told The Logan Banner that Logan has some protection from the current problem, but that might change in the future. Porter said that Logan County has its well known Fire and Ambulance Levy that could be helpful if rates increase dramatically, but other counties might lose departments if they cannot pay up. And if enough departments shut down the smaller pool of firefighters would lead to even higher premiums costing those which are left more money.
"The Governor stepped up and put a moratorium for another year on Workers Comp," Porter said, explaining that the state was caught with its pants down two months ago when Brickstreet representatives told Gov. Joe Manchin that workers compensation premiums might go up by almost double.
"It was scheduled for termination on July 1 for all fire department workers comp policies but it was extended for a year," Porter said. " They sent us all notices of terminations and the word for awhile was the premiums could go up around 90 percent. But the Governor has stepped in and the legislature is supposed to look into it. So they are going to put a freeze on it for a year but it will still be a big issue. I don't think they will be able to raise the money on it. They will have to work it out, but i don't know how. Brickstreet says there are problems wit h the fire departments workers comp system."
Porter said workers comp rates are tricky for volunteers who are in effect nonsalaried public employees. Some volunteer firefighters work minimum wage jobs, while others have good paying mining jobs paying $20 an hour or more. When a fireman gets hurt or injured fighting a fire compensation rates are problematical to say the least.
"Right now the rate is a little above minimum wage the way it is calculated . You may have a fireman who makes $20 an hour as a miner, but his volunteers comp rate is $7.35 an hour. They want to raise that to $14 an hour for volunteers, even though they are not paid. It is a big question. This is hitting all employers all around. A lot of people didn't realize volunteer firefighters have workers compensation. They still perform a task and it is a task that can get them injured or killed. All workers in WV are covered by Workers Comp."
Porter said Logan County should be okay for some time thanks to the levy.
"Logan County is in a unique situation where we have a levy to help, but other counties do not have that funding to help them. Other communities may lose their fire departments. If you have a fire department within five miles of your home and it shuts down, your insurance premiums will go up. This literally affects everybody. If a fire department cannot pay their premium and shuts their doors and there is nobody there it can affect your insurance too. If the fire department is not there to respond the insurance company will raise rates. And I do not see the state creating a new tax for fire services.
"We are lucky in Logan because we have additional funding but other counties don't. But for now Brickstreet is holding off. They brought this up before the governor two months ago and it looks like they are lost. We have 420 volunteer fire departments for 55 counties. In rural areas, it is mostly volunteers that people depend on. "
In West Virginia 95 percent of firefighters are volunteer firefighters whereas the national average is 75 percent, Porter said.
"Volunteer fire fighters are basically non paid public employees in the state of West Virginia, Porter noted. "Volunteer firefighters are there, but officially they are not there in a way. Now volunteer firefighters are in the forefront of an issue because they are a vital link that people depend on. And it may be a link that is taken out. You will miss them when they are gone. By being there they help the public keep their insurance premiums low and they rescue people when tragedy strikes too. But if premiums go up dramatically and nothing is done you will lose your volunteer firefighters.
"Volunteer firefighters provide all sorts of services people take for granted, such as disaster relief, community support and other activities. When the first response call for a tragedy goes out your local firemen are there before FEMA or anybody else. They are the first on the ground within minutes. A lot of people take this for granted , even though the public depends on them to drop what they are doing 24 hours a day to provide vital important service. They stop working, they stop eating, they stop cutting the grass and rush to help for no personal pay and no reimbursement."