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National Guard model could aid West Virginia firefighters

August 20, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

Wanted: Men and women willing to put their lives in jeopardy to protect lives and property in their communities. Must be willing to fund-raise to purchase equipment and receive no pay for their efforts.

When you put it that bluntly, it's no wonder that West Virginia's more than 400 volunteer fire companies are having trouble recruiting new volunteers and keeping the ones they've got. If volunteer companies are to survive, lawmakers may have to consider new methods of funding them.

The issue was raised Sunday by an interim committee of the West Virginia Legislature, which heard State Fire Commission Chairman Joe Bostar say that while companies have been dealing with the volunteer shortage for 10 years, the problem is "snowballing" now.

Bostar and Arnett Corley, assistant to the State Fire Marshal, said that in addition to the increasing number of hours people are putting in at work, many rural areas of the state don't have a pool of younger people to draw on. Many of those people have left the state to find jobs, Bostar said, adding that if you can't find work, there's no way anyone can volunteer.

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Some of the proposals advanced include giving volunteers auto license plates at a reduced costs, offering them a small pension based on years of service and giving them college credits for the training classes that are mandatory for firefighters.

But the most interesting proposal would be to pay the volunteers during training or when they're on a call, similar to the way in which National Guard members are paid. That wouldn't cover all the time spent on things like mandatory reports and equipment maintenance, but it would be better than the present system.

To cover those areas where there isn't a pool of young people from which to draw volunteers, the state could assign firefighters for one- or two-year stints, after which they would rotate out.

The biggest obstacles to such a plan are that it's radically different from the present system and would require additional funding. Unless someone else comes up with a better plan, however, many rural fire halls might be empty.

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