Sanders Unveils Bill to Boost Understaffed US Fire Departments
"Our firefighters, both volunteer and paid, put their lives on the line to protect our communities, but they are not getting the proper support and resources they need and deserve."
Citing the "unprecedented challenges" in "recruiting and retaining" career and volunteer firefighters across the United States, Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday introduced legislation aimed at tackling the staffing crisis in the essential profession.
"The difficulty in recruiting and retaining personnel is an absolute crisis."
"The difficulty in recruiting and retaining personnel is an absolute crisis that has left fire departments and the communities they protect dangerously short-staffed," Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a statement.
"There are a lot of reasons why we are where we are," he added. "But in my view, one thing is entirely clear: Our firefighters, both volunteer and paid, put their lives on the line to protect our communities, but they are not getting the proper support and resources they need and deserve. It's time for that to change."
Sanders' Firefighter Staffing and Support Act would increase available federal funding to fire departments by more than 300% to $12 billion over five years via Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grants.
Additionally, as Sanders' office outlined:
- Allocate funding for technical assistance to support departments in applying for these funds;
- Require that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Fire Administration develop an action plan to improve and streamline the application process;
- Require that FEMA and the Fire Administration provide a report detailing the challenges rural and volunteer fire departments face with staffing, and develop a plan to use federal resources to address the crisis; and
- Protect volunteers from being fired, demoted, or discriminated against by their employer if they respond to a federal emergency or major disaster.
Sanders' office noted that 86% of all U.S. fire departments are categorized as all or mostly volunteer. In Vermont, the figure is 96%. Nationwide, the time donated by volunteer firefighters saves localities an estimated $46.9 billion per year.
Meanwhile, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. has reached historic lows, even as call volume has tripled over the past 30 years--largely due to an increase in emergency medical calls, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Sanders, who gained a reputation as an honest broker for firefighters while serving as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont in the 1980s, sat down last month for a virtual town hall meeting with members of the fire department and emergency medical services personnel in his home state.
"I'm especially concerned that in rural areas dependent on volunteers we are reaching a very challenging situation where diminished staffing is creating a situation where smaller communities may not be able to respond effectively," he said while foreshadowing the legislation he unveiled on Monday.