(State Sen. Ken Yager) How many people would leave their bed in the middle of the night and risk their lives for others for no money and little reward? Our volunteer firefighters do it all the time. We are very fortunate to have many people across our district who are willing to put their hands up and fight throughout the night to save someone’s home – and potentially their lives.
Our volunteer firefighters exemplify our state’s nickname as the Volunteer State, making up 64% of Tennessee’s firefighters. They put their lives on the line for our communities every day and we need to do everything we can to support their efforts.
Earlier this year, I filed legislation to provide an annual payment to Tennessee’s volunteer firefighters upon completion of their training. I was delighted that Governor Bill Lee has included $4.9 million in his 2021-2022 budget for this purpose. It provides an annual $600 payment upon completion of at least 30 hours of training. Currently, the cost of any training or equipment is often at their own expense.
The proposed budget also includes $1 million to provide support grants for volunteer firefighter departments under a program set up by 2019 legislation which I was very happy to co-sponsor. Just as they keep us safe every day, we need to make sure our volunteer firefighters have the resources they need to do their job safely and effectively. The Volunteer Firefighter Equipment and Training Grant Program helps secure the equipment, training, and support they need. Applications for these grants are made through the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance. The proposed funds for these grants are doubled from the previous 2020-2021 budget year and I want all of our local volunteer fire departments to apply.
In addition, legislation I am co-sponsoring has been approved by the Senate to incentivize volunteer firefighter recruitment by establishing an innovative retirement system called a Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP). The bill authorizes the State Treasurer to inquire with local governments and the volunteer fire departments about establishing a LOSAP plan for volunteers providing firefighting and prevention services, emergency medical services, and ambulance services.
LOSAPs may be defined contribution plans, similar to 401(k), or defined benefit plans, like a pension. Such a program is funded by contributions from the local government or nonprofit entities that utilize the services of eligible volunteers. To be eligible to receive benefits from the LOSAP, an individual must be a bona fide volunteer who receives no compensation for the services and instead receives only reimbursement for reasonable expenses or benefits and nominal fees customarily paid to them.
Our volunteer fire departments must recruit individuals to take their place as they age and complete their service. Unfortunately, we are seeing a decline in the number of volunteers to take their place. This program will hopefully provide an incentive that will help them in their recruitment efforts, while providing a needed benefit for the brave men and women who put their lives on the line for the fellow citizens.
I am looking forward to seeing all of these proposals pass in the coming weeks. I hope you will join me in support of this legislation and in appreciation for the great service that our volunteer firefighters do for our communities.