January 27, 2023

House Bill 521 moves forward to help with volunteer firefighter recruiting and retention

Therese Apel

On Wednesday night, Langford Volunteer Fire Department in Rankin County was called to a 3-vehicle accident with injuries and a victim trapped.

The scene spanned about a quarter of a mile on Highway 471, just at rush hour.

“As I looked across the scene that stretched a quarter mile down the highway I saw trained firefighters operating the jaws of life to remove 1 victim from a tangled mess, many others administering professional level medical care to the other victims up and down the highway, controlling the chaos and helping to make someone’s worst day… better,” wrote Langford VFD Chief Shane Adams.

With a three-vehicle accident with multiple injuries, the immediate need was for medically trained personnel. In a case like that, a smaller department might have been in dire straights while they waited on backup.

As Adams pointed out in his facebook post, not one of those firefighters would make money off the assistance they offered that night. Many left work to come to the call, some had left dinner on the table. All came simply because the tones went off, and they went into action. This was a typical Wednesday night to the volunteer fire service. Some are better, some are worse.

Mississippi has seen a 30% drop in its volunteer fire department enrollment in recent years, but a bill has been proposed in the Mississippi Legislature that would help the volunteer fire service recruit and retain members.

House Bill 521, also known as LoSAP (Length of Service Award Program), would install a system in which firefighters can earn points per calendar year to qualify, with minimum earned points required. According to Mississippi Firefighters Association President John Pope, HB-521 was successfully passed from the Insurance Committee under Chairman Henry Zuber, and is now transferred to the Appropriations Committee. Should the bill pass from the house, it will make its way to the senate, where supporters say they hope there’s already a good base of backers.

The incentives would be offered for participating in training courses, drills, station duties, elected or appointed positions, attendance at meetings, participation in department responses, teaching or participating in fire prevention classes or programs. Those points go toward financial incentives, which can be invaluable when gas prices are sometimes rising every day.

The incentive payments will be as follows:

  • $500 per calendar year to qualifying volunteers that meet minimum points value.
  • After 20 years, a volunteer FF can retire with a one-time defined contribution of $10,000 plus interest earned during their years of service.
  • LOSAP is an incentive for our volunteer firefighters who serve their communities.
  • Validation done through the mandatory compliance reporting system established with the Mississippi Department of Insurance

Star Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jackie Squires posted about the bill as well.

“After close to 27 years in the fire service, this has got to be the greatest step toward volunteer retention I’ve ever seen,” he said. “People just don’t realize what it means if we can’t get volunteers to join and get them to stay long-term. The biggest by far would be loss of life. Second would be your homeowners insurance going up. Insurance has a fire rating system that helps to determine your insurance rate.”

Over the last few years it has become harder and harder to recruit volunteer firefighters to come to a department and stay, officials say. Gas prices affect response for certain, but also there are fewer people willing to give their time and services for no reward, according to fire service officials.

“Not one penny of payroll will be paid for these services, and not one penny will be asked for rendering them. Volunteerism is on the decline and we are being asked every day to put more in, and we do,” said Adams. “This team and many across the country spend countless hours training and preparing.”

“This bill will truly have a huge positive impact on the fire services of our state regarding the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters,” said House Rep. Tom Miles on his Facebook. “Great movement in the right direction to say thank you for some of the most selfless volunteers in our state. Thank you all for your service.”

It could be anybody on that road, any day, Adams said.

“Volunteers don’t ask for anything in return, but as a person in a leadership position, I want to give them everything… something… anything… because I know one day I could be laying on the side of the road in despair and I want THIS team, just the way that they are, by my side, making MY day better,” he said. “One other thing I noted today is that at one point, some point, every victim smiled at us and had kind words for what we had done for them, despite their pain and injuries. That’s what we really put in our pockets and take home.”

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