Lawmakers advanced a working copy of a bill to increase funding for West Virginia volunteer fire departments and emergency medical services Sunday during interim legislative committee meetings at Marshall University.
The Joint Committee on Volunteer Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services voted to advance a working copy of House Bill 3153 to the Senate and the House of Delegates for review. The committee is also asking Gov. Jim Justice to add the legislation to the agenda if he calls a special session of the Legislature to address a staffing shortage in the state’s jails and prisons.
“I think it’s pretty important that, if we have a special session, that we get the [House] speaker and the [Senate] president to encourage the governor to put the legislation on the call list. I think it’s pretty important to get it moving,” Sen. Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, said.
The bill is in response to requests for more funding by representatives of the state’s volunteer fire departments and emergency medical service units. During a meeting last month, West Virginia Fire Chiefs Association President Randy James told lawmakers these agencies haven’t seen a funding increase in years, despite skyrocketing operation costs.
Fifteen emergency medical service squads closed last year, and volunteer fire departments are struggling to maintain updated equipment, with the lack of funding also contributing to declines in recruitment and retention, James said.
The proposed bill is similar to one that died during the 2023 legislative session. It would increase the 0.45% fire protection surcharge on casualty insurance policies to a full 1%, with the money to be placed in the fire protection fund and divided between the state’s volunteer fire departments and emergency medical services.
The increase would generate about $12 million annually, enough for each department to receive around $15,000 in additional annual funding, said legislative counsel explaining the bill.
According to oversight provisions contained in the bill, to receive the funding, fire departments would be required to provide a breakdown illustrating the number of paid versus volunteer personnel, as well as a report on their revenues and expenses for the previous two years.
Also under the proposed law, starting Jan. 1, 2026, all departments that receive the funding would be required to report their financial data to the West Virginia Checkbook, a program of the state Auditor’s Office that provides public access to government financial documents.
Delegate Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, said he would have preferred to make that deadline Jan. 1, 2028, to give departments ample time to prepare.
“When it comes before the group, I hope it can be put in there that if the Auditor’s Office is working with a department and they’re having trouble getting up-to-date on that, he can make mention of it and we can provide some allowances,” Statler said.
During the last legislative session, debate on the bill centered on the surcharge increase. The bill was amended to change the funding to a one-time allocation of $12 million from surplus lottery funds, but lawmakers weren’t able to get the bill across the finish line.
Lawmakers have compared the fire and EMS funding situation to the personnel shortage in the state Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, where there are more than 1,000 vacancies, over 700 of which are correctional officer positions.
During Sunday’s committee meeting, lawmakers heard about the harmful effects on employees who don’t have the tools and resources to successfully do their jobs during a presentation from Dr. Kari Mika-Lude, director of the Behavioral Health Workforce and Health Equity Training Center at Marshall University.
In a presentation on first-responder wellness, Mika-Lude said severe understaffing can lead to serious issues for the remaining personnel who have to take on larger workloads.
“People have been leaving this workforce in record numbers and that leaves those who remain at even higher risk of burnout and mental health concerns than they were before due to that severe understaffing and, therefore, excessive workload,” she said.