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WV Legislative Interim: Committee on Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services seeks clarity on Senate Bill 1021

By Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The clarity of a Senate Bill passed during the August special legislative session was questioned by members of the Joint Committee on Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) during their recent interim meeting. 

Senate Bill 1021, which was passed during the recent special session called by Gov. Jim Justice, established two new sources of funding for certain first responders: the County Fire Protection Fund and the All County Fire Protection Fund. 

As written in the bill, as well as an additional appropriations bill, a one time allocation of $3 million was placed into the County Fire Protection Fund to be distributed among counties, based on population, that have a countywide fee “dedicated to fire or emergency services.”  

An additional one time allocation of $3 million was placed into the All County Fire Protection Fund for “the exclusive benefit of fire protection or emergency services.” Money from this fund is to be distributed among all 55 counties based on their population. 

Both funds are to be administered by the Sec. of Homeland Security and distributed to county commissions. The county commissioners are then responsible for the distribution of those funds in their county, according to the bill. 

Additionally, a one-time allocation of $6 million was placed into the state’s Fire Protection Fund to be equally distributed among all of the state’s volunteer fire departments, as long as they meet certain criteria, such as implementing the state auditor’s “Checkbook” fiscal reporting system by 2026. 

During the meeting, Committee Vice-Chair, Del. Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, was the first to ask for clarification regarding the bill. 

“I didn’t understand this to be one time money,” Statler said of the two $3 million allocations. “I understood it to be base-building in the budget.” He also asked for clarification on when departments will receive their money. 

“As we go out and talk to our people across the state this is a big deal because, even if you look at the Fire Protection Fund, it’s roughly $14,000 additional dollars  . . . that we gave to each department, again, for the year. If those departments go out and use that as collateral and then find out it’s a one time money–it’s critical.” 

Chris Dewitt, Senate finance analyst, who spoke upon special request, explained that the funding is a one time appropriation. However, legislators may decide to provide additional funding during their regular legislative session. 

Dewitt also stated that funding is currently available to be distributed among the counties, but typically payments are made quarterly. 

Del. Adam Burkhammer, R-Lewis, then asked if any guardrails were in place to ensure that county commissioners distribute funding to fire departments. 

Counsel responded that language in the bill provides county commissioners with the ability to decide how to distribute the money, but that the statute is written to ensure that it is “used for fire protection or emergency services.” 

Del. D. Rolland Jennings, R-Preston, then questioned language in the bill. 

“It says that the county commission can use this for fire or EMS,” Jennings stated. “In the bill, it specifically stated that it could only be used for fire protection, and only if EMS was within that fire department that they could use it for EMS. I just want to make sure that’s clear, because that’s what we were told before.” 

Counsel responded that funding will go to fire departments, but they may decide whether to use it for their fire or EMS services. 

“So, this isn’t truly clear here,” Jennings replied.

After discussion, Del. Statler asked counsel to check the wording to reduce any uncertainty about how the funding may be used. 

Lastly, during the meeting, Melissa White, Chief Counsel for the House Committee on Education, delivered a presentation on mental health among first responders. 

According to data cited by White, firefighters are two to three times more likely to die by suicide than they are in the line of duty. 

Additionally, “EMS first responders are 10 times more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide than the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) average,” White stated, noting that EMS trauma exposure is greater in West Virginia than in urban areas due to lack of resources, high rates of substance abuse and the number of older adults who need EMS services. 

“The city of Huntington has already begun efforts to support its firefighters and police officers through its Compass program,” White said. “Therefore a template to begin to support first responders exists locally. In addition, other cities have established similar programs and national organizations exist to provide assistance.” 

Following White’s presentation, Committee Chair Sen. Vince Deeds, R-Greenbrier, challenged legislators to make a difference in the lives of first responders. 

“Now is the time to do something,” Deeds stated. “Now is the time. We have the means and the opportunity to try to help out those volunteers and those people that go forward in these difficult times, and it is our time to do something.” 

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