Senator Bernie Sanders, joined by firefighters and leaders of Vermont's first responder community in Shelburne, announced last week that he has introduced legislation to strengthen support for the thinning ranks of volunteer firefighters.
"Volunteer firefighting has been a tradition in our state and country since the beginning of America, but today for a variety of reasons that institution is in trouble," Sanders (I-Vt.) told a news conference at the volunteer fire department here.
The tradition of emergency responder volunteerism is "in danger of weakening and possibly even dying out," according to the Department of Homeland Security. Nationwide, the ranks of volunteer firefighters have dropped more than 10 percent from their peak in 1984.
Vermont's 5,600 volunteer firefighters and the nation's 800,000 volunteer firefighters and emergency medical service personnel "deserve our strong support," Sanders said. "I want the federal government to be a partner in community efforts to keep our volunteer fire departments fully staffed and ready to respond when needed."
Sanders called for federal assistance to community efforts to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters and other emergency responders. The legislation would direct the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to establish a program to provide matching funds to state and local governments, or nonprofit associations, in support of volunteer firefighter and EMS incentive programs. The federal government would provide half of the cost of the incentives, which could include retirement benefits, travel and training reimbursement, health insurance assistance, life insurance, tuition and school loan forgiveness, and property tax reductions.
"Some states and local governments already provide these incentives, but, unfortunately, many communities that rely on volunteer firefighters and emergency medical services personnel, particularly in rural and low-income areas, cannot afford these benefits," Sanders said. "This bill aims to support the best of what local fire companies want to do and what they know will work for them to attract and keep volunteers."