Wyo. chiefs ask legislators to support EMS, fire recruitment, retention
The state could add retirement benefits, eligibility for state employee health insurance, tax benefits and training incentives
By Jasmine Hall
CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Fire chiefs across the state are struggling to recruit and retain firefighters, and they've turned to the Wyoming Legislature for help.
Members of the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee heard from fire leadership Thursday afternoon, and their top priority for the interim session revolves around emergency medical services and firefighters. Members of the committee are responsible for studying the system and will consider drafting legislation to address EMS infrastructure, funding and workforce development.
Developing incentive programs or building upon those already in place for volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians may be one of the ways lawmakers support the system.
"We've obviously identified that recruitment and retention is an all-encompassing topic that affects all of our Wyoming fire service. It also affects our Wyoming EMS," State Fire Marshal Byron Matthews said. "We need more members in each of the departments."
Wyoming Legislative Service Office senior research analyst Donna Shippen kicked off the meeting with a summary of state legislative incentive programs for emergency service providers, which included retirement benefits, eligibility for state employee health insurance, tax benefits and training incentives. Wyoming doesn't have all of these programs, but Shippen gave examples of other states that have successfully implemented them.
She explained how New York and Utah have passed legislation to allow firefighter or EMT participation in the state employee health insurance program. Virginia allows state employees up to 24 hours of additional paid leave in any calendar year to serve with a volunteer fire department and rescue squad, while both Connecticut and New York authorized local governments or fire districts to grant property tax exemptions to volunteer firefighters and EMTs.
Fire chiefs in Wyoming hope to see some of the same efforts in the Wyoming Legislature, because the state is at least 500 firefighters short right now. Wyoming Fire Chiefs Association President Eric Quinney added that the volunteer population is aging, and getting residents to fill these positions is becoming more and more difficult in communities.
Shad Cooper, fire chief for Sublette County Unified Fire and Sublette County fire warden, said they surveyed fire departments in almost every county and received responses from 55 departments. He said the numbers continue to decrease, and there is a pressing need to address the trend.
The issue doesn't just apply to rural counties, either. Laramie County Fire District 1 officials reported they needed new recruits because 63% of the positions weren't filled, and Natrona County Fire District was even higher at 71%.
Some needed 100% of their positions filled. Alpine Fire District reported having one firefighter on staff, and it needed 15 recruits to fill the organization's roster.
But Cooper said he didn't come before the committee just to voice concern. He came with solutions pooled from firefighters of all different backgrounds, and had 14 different points, ranging from a statewide marketing and advertising campaign to free access to Wyoming state parks.
Health care incentives was also a popular proposal, and the Sublette County fire chief said local farmers and ranchers immediately were interested.
"They said, 'This is something we're really interested in. We can't afford health care, we can't afford health care insurance,'" he said. "'Boy, if there's something we could do to access some sort of group health care plan and be a part of, we're on board. Tell us where to sign up.'"
He said there are already many firefighters within his organization who are uninsured, and implementing it would bring new volunteers to their door.
Additional discussions revolved around hunting and fishing privileges, developing a state government employee response policy, college tuition discounts or even motor vehicle registration fee exemptions.
This is just the beginning of addressing the issue as the interim session moves forward. Lawmakers will have to decide if it is the municipality's responsibility or theirs to build up incentive programs for not just county and city firefighters, but EMTs and forest firefighters.