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Texas bill would prevent regulation of volunteer fire departments

Unions representing paid firefighters argued that all firefighters, regardless of status, should be certified


By John Ingle
Times Record News

AUSTIN, Texas — The cost for training and certifying firefighters can be expensive for fire departments across the state, especially for those that deploy volunteers to the field.

That's why a piece of legislation was presented in the Texas House Committee on Licensing & Administration by Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, to put in place a rule that would prevent the state from regulating the more than 1,400 all-volunteer fire departments. If they fall under state directive, they would be required to have their firefighters certified just as paid departments.

Springer, who is also a volunteer firefighter, said there has been talk by unions representing paid firefighters that have argued all firefighters regardless of status should be certified. He said that's not practical because the challenges rural volunteers face are not the same as paid departments in large municipalities.

He said he has more than 300 hours of training, but there are some areas that he doesn't need such as training for high-rise structure fires or incident command instruction because it's not needed for his position in the department.

"We train for what's practical for us and at no time do we ask a volunteers to put themselves where they don't feel comfortable," he said.

Springer said a requirements could limit the number of people who choose to volunteer, putting communities in rural Texas at risk and will drive up the cost of homeowner insurance because of how long it could take a department to respond. The majority of his Texas House District 68 consists of all-volunteer departments.

He is hopeful the bill will make it out of committee, possibly as early as next week, but with time narrowing for this 85th Texas Legislature, it will be a challenge getting through the entire process. But, he said, there isn't any legislation at the time that would make the certification requirement mandatory, keeping volunteer firefighters protected from any such stipulation for the next 18 months.

While the bill takes away the state's authority to regulate and require certification of volunteer firefights, it does have a provision in that stipulates the volunteers could be required to have "certain credentials" if they were to participate in disaster response efforts or other deployments requested by the Texas A&M Forest Service, the Department of Public Safety or the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firefighters' and Fire Marshals' Association of Texas, said the legislation really doesn't change anything as volunteer fire departments have not previously fallen under state oversight. He said some departments that can afford to pay for firefighters to be certified can choose to do so, but those in rural Texas are struggling to make ends meet and can't take on that financial burden.

He said volunteer fire department makes up about 76 percent of the state's fire service, and their firefighters would have to go through hours of training, tests and more if they were subject to the rules that govern paid departments. Having those mandatory requirements on those departments could make it harder to recruit and retain volunteers.

"We want the volunteers to volunteer," he said. "If the state were to come and regulate the volunteers, I think you'd see a mass exodus of volunteer firefighters and emergency responders out of their local departments."

Barron, who has been in the volunteer fire service for about 26 years, said about 1,200 volunteer fire departments participate in the Association, which has programs available for firefighters to go through their training and certification program. He said about a quarter the departments participating in the association's certification program, which is self-paced.

In addition to the 1,422 volunteer departments in the state, there is another 301 with a combination of paid employees and volunteers and 156 fully paid departments. Barron said a paid firefighter had to undergo the training and certification process.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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