Volunteers and the 114th Congress: Where Are We Now?

The first half of the 114th Congress is rapidly coming to a close and it’s been quite a session! Some issues have been kicked down the road, like the appropriations bills for fiscal year 2016, but others have been almost completely addressed, such as the Medicare rate cuts that were averted in March. Similarly, Congress has helped address some challenges in the volunteer fire service, while others issues still need to be considered.

One of the biggest challenges for volunteers is finding that three-way balance between work, personal and fire department commitments. Congress gave some major support to the volunteer fire service in December 2014, when they passed Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, which created the ALERT grant program at the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

These grants will enable departments to provide blended training opportunities—classes where hands-on learning is combined with online education. This blended training will allow more volunteers to complete portions of hazardous materials education classes online and at a time most convenient for them. By minimizing the time volunteers need to take off work or be away from home, the ALERT grants will help departments make initial and continuing education training easier on their volunteers. The IAFC is working to extend the grant program in the appropriation process.

Congress also took a big step towards addressing a volunteer fire department funding issue, but they need your encouragement to cross the finish line. Both the House and Senate recently proposed funding the Department of Agriculture’s Volunteer Fire Assistance grant program at $13 million for FY 2016.

This invaluable program provides grants to fire departments protecting communities of less than 10,000 people. These grants enable budget-strapped departments to obtain the equipment and training that might otherwise be out of reach.

In July, the House unanimously adopted an amendment to increase this amount to $14 million. While the House adopted this increase as part of their proposal, the amendment hasn’t been carried into any FY 2016 appropriations bills. Contact your members of Congress and let them know about this important program and that this increase must be carried into any appropriations or continuing resolution bill for FY 2016.

Taxation policies by the IRS continue to place constraints on effective recruitment and retention programs. The IRS currently requires all volunteer firefighters to be issued W-2s and for all incentives to be reported as taxable income. The IAFC is continuing to support the Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Act (VRIPA), which would allow volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel to receive all property-tax based incentives and up to $600 in other incentives before those incentives are considered taxable income.

VRIPA continues to receive strong bipartisan support and has 46 cosponsors in the House and 6 cosponsors in the Senate. However, Congress needs to keep VRIPA as a priority as they consider major tax legislation. Make sure you contact your members of Congress and explain to them how VRIPA could enable your department to have more meaningful and effective recruitment and retention incentives.

The IAFC is continuing to work with our allies in Congress to pass the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act. This legislation would codify the IRS determination that volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel would not qualify as full-time employees for the purposes of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s requirement for certain employers to offer health insurance to their employees. Encourage your members of Congress to cosponsor this bill and include it in any pieces of tax legislation that Congress may consider as we approach the end of the year.

Congress already has shown responsiveness and interest in addressing issues facing volunteer fire departments. As we start looking forward to 2016, let keep this momentum rolling. The IAFC has letter templates available online to make contacting your members of Congress as easy as possible. Download these letters and contact your members of Congress today!

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