Volunteer firefighters want equal treatment in state disability benefits

By Danielle Thomas - bio | email

MCHENRY, MS (WLOX) - A major push is underway to provide a safety net for 13,326 Mississippi volunteer firefighters should they get hurt in the line of duty. This week Mississippi insurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshal Mike Chaney called on state legislators to approve disability insurance for volunteer firefighters.

Barbecue chicken and ribs equal more than good food for the McHenry-Sunflower Volunteer Fire Department. It's the department's largest fundraiser.

McHenry Chief Thomas Muffler said, "We use that money to purchase some gear and equipment we can't get through the county, maybe send some guys through training."

Firefighters say the financial risk of becoming a volunteer firefighter hurts recruitment and retention. Most volunteers have full-time jobs not related to firefighting. If they are hurt firefighting and can't go back to their full-time job right away, volunteers say the state's workman's compensation plan won't pay for lost wages.

"Once their immediate medical charges are covered and their prescription is paid for then that's all they get," said Chief Ian Shairer of the Silver Run Volunteer Fire Department.

Volunteers say, fortunately, the community rallied around a Big Level volunteer firefighter who was hurt working at a distribution site after Hurricane Katrina.

Cathy Garner of the co-ordinator of the Stone Co Fire Service said, "He slipped. He damaged his rotator cuff, and he was out of work for three months. Instead rally around and raising money for equipment, the firefighters pitched in and raised money to help financially support his wife and two children."

Firefighters say although they are not full-time emergency workers, they deserve to be treated fairly.

Chief  Muffler said, "Fire doesn't know the difference between a career firefighter or a volunteer. We both get hurt the same way, and I think it's time they start treating us as equals."

"It is one of the more dangerous professions in the country," said Capt. Wayne Flurry of the McHenry Volunteer Fire Department. "When you subject yourself to things like that people are going to get hurt, and they definitely need the protection as much as possible."

State officials say in 2007, there were 46 firefighters injured in the line of duty.

Lt. Governor Phil Bryant says he supports extending benefits to more first responders once key issues are resolves.

"We're looking at several different definitions, and that's one of the challenges. Who is a first responder? Could this be someone with the utility company?" said Lt. Gov. Bryant. "So there are some descriptions of a first responder believe it or not that the federal government uses and FEMA uses. That's one of our challenges, once we settle on that and say these are the people that are incorporated in that."

Bryant said, "And it's the challenge in economic times of funding, but it's something we should be responsible for. To ask people to put themselves in harm's way then say if you get hurt it's not going to be our responsibility, the state, is not a position we should be taking."

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