House bill looks to combat ‘dire’ volunteer firefighter shortage

There's a national shortage of volunteer fire fighters.
There's a national shortage of volunteer fire fighters.(WGEM)
Published: Mar. 23, 2022 at 6:46 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WGEM) - When a fire rages in a small community, volunteers are often the only people available to help. As fewer volunteers are available, representatives form the Illinois Firefighters’ Association call the shortage a “public health crisis.”

The volunteers are everyday people, sometimes with day jobs, who put in personal time to their communities whenever the need arises.

“They value the people and structures of their communities,” bill sponsor Sen. Christopher Belt (D-Swansea) said.

With volunteers getting older and training requirements increasing, fewer are often available, with potentially dire consequences as a result. In one instance, a 100-unit fire in an apartment building only had five firefighters respond to the call for help. Professional standards would require at least 30 to battle that blaze.

“Could you imagine being in that burning building and having five fire fighters?” Director of Governmental Affairs Margaret Vaughn said. “That’s totally unacceptable. That is a public safety crisis, and I don’t think a lot of people realize that.”

Legislation moving through the Illinois House would implement a $500 tax credit for volunteer firefighters who make less than $10,000 for their services. Similar legislation is in place in other states. This bill is modeled after law in New York.

Advocates admit it isn’t a lot of money, but it’s a start. Plus, it costs less than fully funding an employee a fire department, which many communities can’t afford. Representatives from rural communities say they rely on volunteers as their first line of defense in emergencies.

The volunteers do more than put out fires. A majority of the emergency calls are related to medical services. They respond to car crashes, lift assists and other emergencies. Sen. Dale Fowler (R-Harrisburg) said emergencies occur often in the Shawnee National Forest when hikers and travelers injure themselves.

“It’s our volunteer fighters that are going to the rescue of these people that have these accidents,” Fowler said. “It’s not only fighting fires, but it’s these individuals putting their lives on the line to get down these rocks, rappel down these rocks and such.”

“It goes so far beyond,” he continued.

The bill has stalled in the house after passing unanimously from the Senate. Advocates said it’s because the state is trying to figure out how to fund the tax credit. Vaughn argues the cost is far overshadowed by the cost of funding fire departments. There are approximately 20,000 volunteer fire fighters in the state. With a $500 tax credit per person, it would total about $1 million. Only firefighters making less than 10,000 from their service will be eligible for the credit.

A hearing in the Revenue committee is scheduled for Thursday. They’re hoping for a vote on the House floor before session concludes April 8.

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