Investing in our volunteer firefighters
Volunteer fire departments are struggling. There are more than 20 volunteer fire departments in our area, with many seeing fewer and fewer people give their time to protecting the community. It is a difficult job, as these volunteers make a commitment that takes them away from family and their jobs when emergencies arise.
To help attract new volunteers and retain the ones we have, Indiana could allow local township governments in their fire districts to add money to the public employees’ defined contribution plan, which acts like a retirement fund, on behalf of these volunteers.
Giving local township governments this tool would help attract and retain volunteers, which would improve public safety. Government officials could decide how much to contribute, and volunteers would need to serve for at least five years to become fully vested. But, the longer a volunteer’s commitment is to a fire department, the more they will earn when they retire from service.
Indiana is home to an estimated 18,000 volunteer firefighters, but rosters are dwindling here and across the nation. This could leave Hoosiers with unanswered calls during an emergency, fire departments shutting down or merging and longer wait times for these life-saving volunteers to come to the rescue.
Yes, these positions are on a volunteer, unpaid basis, but these departments are at risk of closing if something is not done. Nationally, volunteer fire departments save residents approximately $139 billion annually in taxes by not collecting a salary and save property owners another $450 billion through lower insurance premiums.
To help encourage others to serve, Ivy Tech Community College started a public safety scholarship, providing students who are also volunteer firefighters or EMTs with free tuition, which begins next school year.
While beneficial, this one tool is likely not enough. Local fire chiefs I met with support this retirement incentive as a new tool to help recruit and retain volunteers.
I am authoring a bill this upcoming legislative session that would give local township governments this tool to help find new faces to fill these rewarding positions. We need to adjust to our changing world to keep volunteer fire departments in operation for our future.
I encourage anyone interested in serving in public safety to visit their local volunteer fire station and learn more about joining.
Editor’s note: State Rep. Steve Davisson, R-Salem, represents House District 73, which includes Washington County and portions of Harrison, Orange, Clark, Lawrence and Jackson counties.