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Death benefit bill for W.Va. emergency responders introduced

February 01, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The families of two firefighters killed in a propane explosion Tuesday in Raleigh County, W.Va., would have been eligible for a $50,000 death benefit that is being proposed by state Sen. John Unger and has the backing of four other senators in the first session of the 78th Legislature.

"It's just a way to bring financial security for families who send their loved ones off in harm's way like down there in Ghent (W.Va.)," Unger said Wednesday when contacted about Senate Bill 90, which was introduced Jan. 15.

Unger said he collaborated with Scott Schill, chief of the Bedington Volunteer Fire Department, to draft the bill, which proposes the death benefit be given to families of "firefighters and EMS personnel who are killed as a result of an injury arising out of and in the course of performance of official duties or arising out of any activity on or off duty in the capacity of a firefighter or EMS provider."

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Two members of the Ghent Volunteer Fire Department were among the four people killed in the propane explosion, which happened at a convenience store about 70 miles south of Charleston, W.Va. Five others were injured, including another volunteer firefighter, officials have said.

"You're not talking a huge financial number," Unger said of the legislation's expense to the state. "I just think it's the right thing to do."

Schill said Wednesday he and Unger received backing last fall from the West Virginia State Fireman's Association to introduce the legislation along with Senate Bill 92, a proposal that calls for the establishment of a retirement pension for volunteer firefighters.

"It's just a way of saying thank you for 20 years of service," Schill said of the compensation plan, which is modeled after one adopted some years ago in Maryland. Schill said most states provide a death benefit, ranging from $15,000 to more than $200,000.

"Fifty thousand is a pretty good start," Schill said.

Designed to be financially supported by the volunteer fire departments, Schill believes the proposed West Virginia Length of Service Act would help with retention of volunteers, who would have to earn points to qualify for the $400-per-month benefit.

"It's not just a hand-me," Schill said.

In conjunction with the pending legislation, Unger said he has arranged three legislative workshops across the state at his own expense to help firefighters and EMS responders understand how they can lobby lawmakers to pass the proposed legislation and bring about future change.

"What I'm doing is for the long term - I want to build a movement to empower them to make a change in West Virginia," Unger said.

He and Schill hosted the first workshop last weekend in Belington, W.Va., the hometown of the late Michael A. "Mikey" Hart, a volunteer firefighter who was killed in December 2005 in a vehicle accident that happened shortly after he finished teaching a firefighting class. A West Virginia University adjunct professor, Hart taught classes all over West Virginia, officials said.

"We don't realize how important they are to our lives until we need them," Unger said of the need to support emergency responders.

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