Congress, White House Respond When the Volunteer Fire Service Demands Action
January 5, 2015
By Dave Finger, Chief of Legislative and Regulatory Affairs, NVFC
A year ago the volunteer fire service was up in arms. Cable news channels and major newspapers were reporting that as an unintended consequence of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, or “Obamacare”), many emergency services agencies could be required to buy health insurance for volunteer personnel who receive retention incentives. Had this come to pass, many agencies could have been forced to shut their doors or stop providing incentives. Using the National Volunteer Fire Council’s (NVFC) Engage grassroots legislative service, NVFC members sent thousands of letters and e-mails to Congress, the White House, and the IRS asking them to provide relief. Legislation was eventually introduced and within a month the White House announced that it would not treat nominally-compensated volunteers as employees under the PPACA.
A similar scenario played out in June when the Department of Defense (DoD) announced that it was unilaterally suspending two federal programs that transfer decommissioned military equipment to state forestry agencies and volunteer fire departments, primarily to help fight wildland fire. Because the equipment provided through the Federal Excess Personal Property Program (FEPP) and the Firefighter Property Program (FFP) frequently does not meet federal emissions standards, DoD was concerned that donating it violated the terms of a waiver that the military receives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Through Engage, NVFC members again expressed their unhappiness to Congress, the White House, and DoD, and by the end of August FEPP and FFP were back online.
In both cases, the federal government was doing something that was going to make life harder on a lot of people for no good reason, the volunteer fire service contacted their elected representatives and told them to stop it, and despite the popular wisdom that Washington, DC, is perpetually mired in partisan gridlock, policy makers moved quickly to fix the problem. In other words, the people spoke and Congress and the President listened and acted accordingly, which is how things are supposed to work.
The Obamacare and FEPP/FFP episodes demonstrate the power that the volunteer emergency services have when we act collectively. Unfortunately, all too often the unity required to get Congress and the President to act is triggered only when something is imposed on or taken away from us. By contrast, cuts to the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program (slashed by 40 percent since FY 2009) or tax hikes on volunteer retention incentives (imposed in 2011) don’t always result in the same level of outcry.
Part of the problem is that budget cuts and tax increases tend to be part of bigger political battles. When Congress fails to pass a budget or fix the federal tax code there are no splashy segments on CNN or banner headlines in newspapers about the impact on the volunteer emergency services. As a result awareness is muted, but the impacts are, unfortunately, very real.
In FY 2009, volunteer fire departments received 2,829 AFG awards totaling approximately $217 million. In 2012, by contrast, volunteer agencies only received 1,079 grants for $89.3 million. Less funding means fewer grants and lower application success rates, which in turn leads to fewer applications. Between 2009 and 2013 the number of volunteer fire departments applying for AFG dropped from 11,204 to 4,986.
Providing incentives to volunteer personnel is more prevalent than ever as recruitment and retention has become increasingly challenging in recent decades. The Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Act (VRIPA), which the NVFC helped to get passed in 2007, exempted minor benefits that volunteers receive as a reward for their service from being subject to federal income tax. This allowed agencies to provide small incentives without having to report to the IRS, issue W-2 forms, and withhold payroll taxes. Since VRIPA expired in 2011, the NVFC has heard from departments from across the country that had enforcement actions initiated against them by the IRS for improperly reporting benefits.
Getting Congress and the administration to fix these problems is going to be tough but it is doable if the volunteer emergency services community speaks loudly and clearly with one voice. In 2015 the NVFC will be advocating for an increase in AFG funding as well as reauthorization of VRIPA. We’ll be issuing action alerts to our members, asking you to weigh in with Congress on these and other important legislative priorities. Sign up to receive these action alerts at http://cqrcengage.com/nvfc/.
The success of the volunteer fire service with Obamacare and FEPP/FFP in 2014 was achieved in large part because thousands of NVFC members contacted Congress and the White House. If you are willing to be as active in 2015, together we have an opportunity to continue that success.
Dave Finger is the point of contact for legislative, regulatory, and standards issues concerning the volunteer emergency services. He serves as the NVFC's liaison with Congress and federal government agencies and advises the board and membership on governmental matters. Dave graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in Political Economy and received a Masters degree in Legislative Affairs from The George Washington University. He spent several years working on Capitol Hill before joining the NVFC in 2005.