Pa. bill would ensure workers' compensation for all volunteer FFs, EMS providers

Under current law, volunteers may only be covered if they are injured during an emergency response and not during other on-duty activities


Stephanie Panny
The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Brian Oppelt Jr., the fire chief at Plymouth’s Elm Hill Hose Company #3, knew he would be covered by workers’ compensation if injured while on a call. He didn’t realize those who did not go out on response calls, but still worked as active members of the company would not be if they got injured performing essential duties.

Senate Bill 94 would change that.

“Basically, it was something that I think most volunteers assumed that this was already in play,” Oppelt said. “We are essentially on-duty and doing service to the borough that we don’t get paid for, but when that call goes out every volunteer becomes a borough employee.”

The bill was introduced by state Sen. Scott Martin, R-13, Lancaster, and co-sponsored by state Sens. Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Twp., Kristen Phillips-Hill, R-28, York County, John Yudichak, I-14, Swoyersville, and 15 other lawmakers.

Baker said the bill, introduced in 2019 and passed by the Senate on Feb. 3, is designed to expand workers’ compensation to ensure that all active duty volunteers for fire and EMS/rescue companies are covered by workers’ compensation in case they are injured while performing their duties.

Baker said the bill was sparked when a volunteer was injured at a fundraising event for the fire company. The volunteer was worried they weren’t covered by workers’ compensation because it didn’t happen while responding to a call. Previously, those covered were firefighters and EMS/rescue workers who put themselves at risk in the line of duty.

“So many of our volunteer fire and EMS, the scope of their duties extends beyond the response time,” Baker said. “They have to focus so much on those administrative and fundraising duties to keep the doors of the fire station open. This is important because it will include everyone.”

Frank Zangari, Girardville fire chief and president of Schuylkill County Fire Chiefs, said the administrative volunteers weren’t originally included as part of the original workers’ compensation bill, as it only focused on those who go into the burning buildings or go on the rescue calls. Zangari said these administrative volunteers put in an “enormous” amount of time to keep the doors open and to keep volunteers coming into the station.

“We’re not taking care of active volunteers, period,” Zangari said. “We’re only taking care of those responding to emergency calls.”

Currently, the compensation fund is funded by the municipalities, which pay premiums on insurance for these volunteers. If the bill were to be passed in the House, Zangari said the investigations into compensation claims could get stricter, and only active — not social — members would be included.

Baker said the bill, which is now moving through the House, is part of an overall approach the General Assembly has taken on to “stem the tide” of volunteers and help with recruitment and retention.

To do this, the General Assembly approved the formation of a committee dedicated to researching the decline of volunteers and providing a list of recommendations for legislation that would help prevent it.

The Senate Resolution 6 Committee had 40 members representing both volunteer and career firefighting companies and EMS/Rescue companies across Pennsylvania, including the state’s Fire Commissioner Bruce Trego. All of these members put together a 104-page document with a list of 27 recommendations supported by various reports geared toward the drafting of the bill.

According to the report, the numbers of volunteer firefighters and EMS/rescue workers have been dwindling. Starting at 300,000 in the 1970s, that number has decreased to just 38,000 across the state in 2018, and around 2,215 companies out of the 2,462 companies in Pennsylvania have become volunteer or mixed companies.

As of 2001, the value of service these companies offer was marked at $6 billion. However, in today’s dollars, that number could be close to $10 billion.

To cover the cost of more people, Zangari said there also might be an increase on what municipalities would have to pay.

“Personally, I think that’s a small price to pay,” Oppelt said. “It’s peanuts.”

Baker said when the Senate approved SB 94, it also approved another two bills that addressed some of the other recommendations in the report. One bill, she said, dealt with expanding volunteer fire loan assistance programs that would increase loan amounts and extend the use of fire relief funding, and another bill that would extend the life of the fire and EMS grant program, which includes retention and recruitment programs, another four years.

“We have so many volunteers,” Baker said. “Whether they’re responding to a call or working at the annual bazaar it was my belief that they’re still performing essential duties as part of those functions. I believe that we should be extending that important coverage because they’re protecting our lives.”

Zangari said it’s good to see that so many legislators voted to pass the bill in the Senate.

“It’s nice to know that there are still people who care about the volunteer fire department and know what an asset it is to these small towns and cities across the United States,” Oppelt said.

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©2020 The Citizens' Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

 
SB94 Passage

Senate Approves Martin and Phillips-Hill Legislation to Protect Workers’ Compensation Coverage for Injured Volunteer Fire, EMS Personnel HARRISBURG – Critical members of volunteer fire companies, ambulance corps and rescue squads who are injured in the line of duty would qualify for workers’ compensation coverage under a bill approved by the Senate today, according to the bill’s sponsors, Senators Scott Martin (R-13) and Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-28). Senate Bill 94 would ensure coverage for all active volunteers and integral members of a volunteer fire, ambulance or rescue company insured through the State Workers Insurance Fund (SWIF). A Senate Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee hearing in 2017 included a discussion of problems related to SWIF denying coverage to these critical volunteers. The legislation would apply to 1,550 volunteer fire companies and 92 ambulance organizations that are insured by SWIF. “The volunteers who dedicate so much of their time and effort to protecting our lives and property should not have to worry about the financial consequences if they are injured in the course of their duties,” Martin said. “They give so much of themselves to protect the community, so they deserve to know that we will stand up for them when they need us most.” “Many men and women serve in various capacities with our volunteer fire companies, EMT and ambulance associations,” Phillips-Hill said. “This issue was brought to me by a local constituent who was denied worker’s compensation after being injured during a fire company carnival. This bill will provide peace of mind to all volunteers across the Commonwealth to ensure that no matter the capacity in which you volunteer, that the law protects you.” The bill would only apply to active volunteers. Social members would not be included. The legislation is part of a broader focus by lawmakers on the challenges facing fire and EMS companies throughout the state. Last week, the Senate approved two bills to expand grant and loan programs for fire and EMS companies and support volunteer recruitment and retention programs. Senate Bill 94 was sent to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Posted by PA Senate GOP on Monday, February 3, 2020

 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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