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The volunteer dilemma

March 14, 2003

For 20 years or more, America's volunteer fire/rescue companies have faced personnel shortages because training requirements continue to increase and the average employee's work week keeps getting longer.

Now Pennsylvania's homeland security chief says the volunteer shortage may affect the state's ability to prepare for terrorism, because volunteers are often first on the scene of a disaster. There's no easy solution, but at least someone has acknowledged that there's a problem.

Homeland Security Director Keith Martin got to the heart of the problem Wednesday, saying that the government asks volunteers to train hard and risk lives and health, but offers "too little in terms of recognition, respect and support."

Martin didn't say offer a solution, but did caution lawmakers against signing bonuses for new volunteers, a benefit that might alienate those on the job for decades.

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Some areas, including Washington County, Md., have put in place programs that provide a retirement benefit for those who have served in a fire or ambulance company. But this benefit doesn't yield anything for decades, during which the volunteers must keep up on training and continue to put themselves at risk.

Another possibility: Income- or property-tax credits for volunteers. There would be a cost to the state and local governments in lost revenue, but it would certainly be less that theywould have to spend for professionals.

As for the issue of training, it should be as easy as possible to obtain. And those who are just beginning should get additional support during the early months when they're asked to do a lot of studying, but don't get the satisfaction of performing in an emergency.

Finally, because there will always be a number of professionals needed for daylight shifts, state officials should look at the possibility of giving volunteers preference when applying for those slots.

Such folks would already be trained and have the experience to avoid the friction that sometimes results when paid and non-paid people work for the same company.

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