HB173: Employment protections could preserve volunteer emergency services

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Seventy-five percent of Utah firefighters are volunteers. A proposed bill could protect emergency responders’ civilian jobs. (The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Proposed legislation could save struggling volunteer emergency services by making it illegal for employees to lose civilian jobs because of time spent in emergency community service.

According to HB173 sponsor Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, volunteers comprise most of rural Utah’s emergency services.

“If you live in rural Utah and you get lost on a trail somewhere, it’s going to be Search and Rescue that comes for you, and those are all volunteers — unpaid,” Snider said.

Of the 268 fire departments in the state, 75 percent are volunteer, according to State Fire Marshal Coy Porter. A common problem facing this 75 percent is trying to keep their volunteers.

“What we’ve seen in the last little bit is sometimes there is a hesitancy for individuals in communities to sign up for these positions because they’re afraid of their employment,” Snider said. “In some extreme instances, we have actually had volunteer emergency service members fired for participating in those sort of rescue attempts.”

HB173 would introduce protections similar to those tied to the U.S. National Guard, U.S. Air Force Reserve and U.S. Army Reserve. Snider said under the bill employers would not be allowed to fire emergency service volunteers for taking time off to serve the community, but they would not have to pay them for their time, either.

Currently, volunteers face an either-or decision when deciding whether to stick with emergency services.

Chris Willden is the battalion chief at Uintah City Fire Department, which is comprised entirely of volunteers.

“We get them in there, we get them trained, we get them certified, they go out on a couple of calls, and their employers start to catch wind of it and that they’re leaving the job, and it becomes a battlefront,” Willden said. “Do they come out to do something that they love, trying to help the community, or do they put food on the family’s table?”

The introduction of these protections would lift a burden from responders’ shoulders.

“It would help to put our firefighters at ease, to know that if we get a structure fire and the tones go off and our pagers go, that they can run, they can come out, take care of the situation in an hour or two hours, without it falling upon the cost of their civilian employer to pay them,” Willden said.

Miscommunication between employers and employees sometimes results in volunteer responders losing their jobs. In one case, one of Willden’s firefighters lost his job even though his employer had initially been on board with the outside volunteer work. HB173 would protect volunteers from similar situations in the future.

“We hope that this bill will address those kinds of issues so that the employer is an active part of what happens in the community and allows these individuals who have the training and who are interested in serving their community, that they can actually do that without fear of loss of their employment,” Porter said.

Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan, is a supporter of the bill.

“Volunteer fire departments are critical to a lot of our smaller communities and they are tough to find these days,” Potter said. “It’s a different world, and everyone seems too busy to do these volunteer positions. Anything we can do to encourage that and help them along with the important work that they do, I think we should jump on board.”

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