The volunteer fire service has a major recruitment and retention problem. It isn’t just the same old story that fire chiefs in volunteer and combination departments have been heard for years. Between 2008 and 2011, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. declined from 827,000 to 756,400, almost a 9% drop. We’ve seen the numbers go down in the past but never for four years straight, and before 2010, never below 770,000.
Although the severity of the recent decline is unprecedented, the reasons behind it are fairly well known. Increased training and certification standards combined with higher call volumes have made volunteer firefighting more time consuming than ever. At the same time, there are fewer people with less free time available living in communities traditionally served by volunteers. For years, we saw the percentage of firefighters over the age of 40 serving in communities of 2,500 or fewer residents creep up from 36.8% in 1987 to 50% in 2006 and 53.1% in 2011. Today, nearly 30% of the firefighters serving in our nation’s smallest communities are over the age of 50.
What can be done? The National Volunteer Fire Council believes that the federal government has a role to play. The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program provides roughly $30 million each year in competitive grants to fund local recruitment and retention efforts. Now, legislation recently was introduced that would create a $1,000 federal income tax credit for all volunteer firefighters and EMS responders. The NVFC supports these types of programs and policies that provide direct assistance to the agencies and people that need it the most.
Ultimately, however, recruitment and retention happens at the local level. Agencies across the U.S. have established creative programs to bolster volunteer staffing levels, including by providing minor benefits like stipends, reimbursement or even retirement benefits in the form of length of service award programs (LOSAP). Unfortunately, the federal tax treatment of volunteer benefits is unnecessarily complex and makes administering programs burdensome on local agencies that have more important things to worry about. This summer, the tax-writing committees in the House and Senate are developing legislation to reform the tax code, and the NVFC is pushing for Congress to include two common-sense measures that would make it easier for communities to offer modest incentives to their volunteers.
The Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Reauthorization Act (S. 501) exempts any property tax benefit and up to $600 per year in any other type of benefit that a volunteer receives (outside of an hourly wage or LOSAP) from being subject to income or payroll taxes. The Volunteer Emergency Services Recruitment and Retention Act (S. 506/H.R. 1009) clarifies the tax treatment of LOSAP, allowing contributions to be guaranteed to individual volunteers, raising a federal cap established in 1996 on annual contributions into an individual’s LOSAP and reducing the reporting requirements that plan administrators must adhere to.
These bills do not provide any direct government assistance or create a new federal program. Rather, they simplify the treatment of volunteer benefits under the tax code so that agencies can provide incentives with a minimum of hassle from the IRS.
Use the NVFC’s Capwiz system to contact your U.S. representative and senators to ask them to co-sponsor both bills.
David Finger is the director of government relations for the National Volunteer Fire Council, a leading nonprofit membership association representing the interests of the volunteer fire, EMS and rescue services. The NVFC serves as the voice of the volunteer in the national arena and provides invaluable tools, resources, programs and advocacy for first responders across the nation.