Volunteer Recruitment and Retention Bills Introduced in Congress

Last week, three pieces of legislation were introduced in Congress that would clarify how volunteer benefits are taxed, making it easier for local agencies and governments to establish and administer incentive programs to bolster recruitment and retention efforts.

On March 6, Representatives Peter King (R-NY), Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), Rob Andres (D-NJ), Tim Bishop (D-NY), Robert Brady (D-PA), Joe Courtney (D-CT), Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Michael Grimm (R-NY), Richard Hanna (R-NY), Steve Israel (D-NY), Michael Michaud (D-ME), Bill Owens (D-NY), and Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced H.R 1009, the Volunteer Emergency Services Recruitment and Retention Act, which would clarify the federal tax treatment of length of service award programs (LOSAPs). On March 7, Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced Senate companion legislation, S. 506.

LOSAP is a retirement savings plan that thousands of volunteer emergency services agencies offer as a way to retain veteran personnel. Approximately 20 percent of the nation’s volunteer firefighters participate in some type of LOSAP. Unfortunately, the treatment of LOSAP in the federal tax code is confusing, preventing some departments from establishing plans and complicating the administration of existing plans. H.R. 1009/S. 506 fixes these problems without raising or lowering taxes. To learn more about this legislation and contact your U.S. Representative and Senators to ask them to co-sponsor it, click here to view an Action Alert on the NVFC’s Capwiz web site.

Also on March 7, Senators Schumer and Collins introduced S. 501, the Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Reauthorization Act. S. 501 would exempt from income taxation all property tax benefits and up to $600 per year of other types of benefits that volunteer emergency responders receive as a reward for their service. Click here to access the NVFC’s Action Alert on S. 501.

“There is no greater challenge facing the volunteer emergency services today than recruitment and retention,” said NVFC Chairman Philip C. Stittleburg. “The Volunteer Emergency Services Recruitment and Retention Act as well as the Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Reauthorization Act will give local agencies and governments much-needed flexibility to implement incentive programs that work for their community. On behalf of the nation’s volunteer emergency response community I’d like to thank the sponsors and co-sponsors of these critical pieces of legislation for their support.”

According to the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) U.S. Fire Department Profile Through 2011, there are 756,400 volunteer firefighters serving in 27,595 fire departments across the country, including 20,200 fire departments staffed by volunteers only.  Another NFPA report, The Total Cost of Fire, published in March 2012, estimated that the value of the time donated by volunteer firefighters in the United States in 2009 was approximately $129.7 billion. 

Unfortunately, fire departments are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain the next generation of volunteers. Increased training and certification requirements have made volunteer  emergency response an extraordinarily time-consuming activity, even as a variety of shifting societal factors have left fewer young people with less free time available in communities traditionally served by volunteers. 

The challenges that fire departments face in attracting younger volunteers are reflected in data from NFPA’s annual Fire Department Profile reports, which show a 21.4 percent drop in the number of firefighters under the age of 40 serving in communities of 2,500 or fewer residents since 2000. Overall, there are 70,750 fewer volunteer firefighters in the United States than there were just four years ago, a drop of approximately 8.5 percent.

In order to bolster recruitment and retention, many volunteer fire and EMS agencies now provide financial and non-monetary incentives. These benefits can include uniforms, annual awards ceremonies, reduced property taxes and other incentives that cost little but demonstrate the community’s support for the volunteer firefighter. Even modest rewards show volunteers that their service is valued by the community. Federal taxation reduces the incentive value of volunteer benefits and creates a hardship on the jurisdictions that provide them.