Budget cuts may erode volunteer firefighter benefits

By Ashley Porter - email

POCAHONTAS, MS (WLOX) - Most days, you'll find Tim Chennault waiting for a beep. It's the sound of his pager alerting him to a fire, car accident, or other emergency in the area covered by the Pocahontas Volunteer Fire Department. Chennault is the department's chief.

"It's fulfilling a childhood dream," Chennault said. "It's all to just protect the citizens in our area and our district."

Within that district of seven or eight square miles, "There's no other responders," Chennault said.

And if something happened to him or any of the more than 13,000 volunteer firefighters in the state while on the job, they could find themselves with no income. The workers compensation that some volunteers are eligible for doesn't cover lost wages.

"There just needs to be some extra benefits for us who are strictly volunteering -- no pay, using our own resources, our own vehicles to respond to calls," Chennault said.

It's one of the issues addressed Tuesday by State Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, who also serves as State Fire Marshal.

"Part of our goal is to try to give some type of benefit to volunteer firemen," Chaney said. "What we have done at the department is to allow part of our rebate money to buy disability insurance."

But with less money coming in for the state to spend, getting volunteer firefighters those benefits could be a battle.

"If we lose [volunteer firefighters], it's going to be catastrophic to the state in terms of cost of insurance and cost of lives," Chaney said.

That's a potential cost that Chennault hopes doesn't discourage people from serving the public.

"Most departments struggle to get 12 to 15 active members," he said. "It's a struggle."

Chaney said the state's fire academy could suffer up to $200,000 in cuts. He also may not be able to hire inspectors to check the safety of manufactured homes. Instead, that would be turned over to private inspectors.

But Chaney said he's determined to maintain that program that provides volunteer firefighters with disability insurance if they're hurt on the job.

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