Volunteer firefighters would be aided by several proposals under consideration in the Tennessee Senate this year. This includes Senate Bill 655, which was approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week, to incentivize volunteer firefighter recruitment by establishing a retirement system called a Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP). The legislation authorizes the state treasurer to inquire with local governments and the volunteer fire departments about establishing a LOSAP plan for volunteers providing firefighting and prevention services, emergency medical services, and ambulance services.
The majority of Tennessee’s firefighters are volunteers. The 22,065 active firefighters reported to the State Fire Marshall’s Office in 2020 consists of 14,218 (64%) volunteers and 7,847 (35.6%) career firefighters.
“Our volunteer fire departments are on the front lines of keeping our families safe, especially in Tennessee’s rural communities,” said Senator Janice Bowling, sponsor of the legislation. “We need to do everything we can to aid their efforts and ensure that the next generation of volunteer firefighters are in place. Our volunteer firemen have to recruit individuals to take their place as they age and complete their service. This program will hopefully provide an incentive that will help them in their recruitment efforts.”
LOSAPs may be defined contribution plans, similar to 401(k), or defined benefit plans, like a pension. Such a program is funded by contributions from the local government or nonprofit entities that utilize the services of eligible volunteers. To be eligible to receive benefits from the LOSAP, an individual must be a bona fide volunteer who receives no compensation for the services and instead receives only reimbursement for reasonable expenses or benefits and nominal fees customarily paid to them.
Another proposal to aid volunteer firefighters under consideration this year is Senate Bill 778, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville) and Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston) to provide an annual $600 payment upon completion of at least 30 hours of training. Currently, the cost of any training or equipment is often at their own expense. The $4.92 million cost for the annual volunteer firefighter training payment is included in Governor Bill Lee’s 2021-2022 budget proposal.
In addition, the proposed budget includes $1 million to provide support grants for volunteer firefighter departments under a program set up by legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2019. The Volunteer Firefighter Equipment and Training Grant Program was established to better equip volunteer firefighter departments to serve their communities and reduce fire fatalities, including those incurred by firefighters. Grants are awarded through applications by local volunteer fire departments and are used for the purpose of firefighting equipment or to help them meet local matching requirements for federal grants to purchase equipment.