Stevens bill to aid firefighters is approved

First Posted: 4/23/2009

RALEIGH The N.C. General Assemblys passage of a bill backed by Rep. Sarah Stevens could boost the ranks of volunteer firefighters, considered to be at a near-crisis level in Surry.
State lawmakers on Thursday ratified the Future Volunteer Firefighters Act, of which the Mount Airy representative was a primary sponsor. The measure that now has been approved by both the Senate and House will become law as soon as it is signed by Gov. Bev Perdue.
The legislation, which also applies to volunteer rescue squads, is aimed at making sure existing legal restrictions on employment of youths under 18 do not prohibit those between 15 and 18 from participating in fire- or rescue-related training.
Stevens said in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon that the law will be successful in protecting the future of volunteer fire departments and rescue squads across North Carolina. She added that people who get involved in such service at an early age likely will continue it throughout adulthood.
Thats a good age to reach them, the first-term Republican member of the House of Representatives said of the 15-to-18 range.
But an obstacle has existed to hamper younger people from becoming involved, which Stevens said is the motivation behind the Future Volunteer Firefighters Act. That is the employment regulations restricting activities of younger people regarding fire departments and rescue squads.
It is having an impact on volunteer fire departments, Stevens said.
The measure ratified Thursday creates an exemption to labor law so that uncompensated qualified youths in the targeted age group can receive training through their volunteer fire departments or rescue squads, the state fire marshals office or Department of Community Colleges.
It is expected to result in an expansion of junior firefighter programs among the 1,570 volunteer fire and rescue departments in North Carolina.
Stevens said the Future Volunteer Firefighters Act recognizes the important role of the volunteer organizations, which one fellow lawmaker called probably the best value to homeowners and taxpayers that exist in the state.
Volunteer firefighter numbers have been dwindling in recent years, due to factors including the economy and increased time and work demands on families. The various fire departments in Surry County, for example, had around 700 members 20 years ago, but that has dropped to about 600 today. This represents some five less members per station when divided among all 19 departments in the county.
Surry Fire Marshal Doug Jones has said the manpower situation is probably getting into the crisis, or near-crisis, level. It has prompted measures such as a three-station dispatch procedure in the county, in which three departments are summoned to every fire call to ensure adequate coverage.
The ability to provide proper protection in a particular community plays a huge role in the insurance costs paid by homeowners.
This legislation will allow these departments to attract, fully train and retain the fire and rescue workers that we so desperately need but too often do not have to protect our state, North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin said of the new law.
If fire and rescue departments are better equipped to handle emergencies, their communities will not only be better protected, but also receive larger homeowners insurance discounts, Goodwin added in a prepared statement.
Contact Tom Joyce at [email protected] or at 719-1924.

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