Volunteer Firefighters are walking away…

West Virginia State Firemen’s Association Press Release

July 19, 2010

Approximately 80% of West Virginians are protected by volunteer fire departments. Volunteer Fire Departments are staffed by your family members, your friends and your neighbors. These dedicated volunteers serve 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, to help their communities deal with fires, auto accidents, floods, and other emergencies. They live and work in the neighborhoods they serve – protecting you and your families – often risking their lives so that others may live.  The term ‘volunteer’ means that they give of their time to train, prepare, and respond when needed without being paid.  Recent changes in Worker’s Compensation and Employer’s Liability – a loss of Broadform Liability Coverage – have now placed the personal livelihoods and assets of these volunteers at risk – basically, under certain conditions, the Fire Chief, fire line officer, Fire Department Board of Director’s member and individual firefighters can be personally sued if they send a firefighter into harm’s way and that firefighter gets hurt.  When we joined the volunteer fire service, we knew that it is a dangerous activity. We also knew that if in the event we were injured, the fire department would have insurance to help us get back on our feet. That’s no longer going to be the case. Volunteer Firefighters risk personal liability for making split second life or death decisions in situations where they lack the resources – either equipment or manpower – to fully meet all of the national standards. National standards that no fire department in the country can meet 100%.

Representatives from the State that were appointed to the committee want to say “…the Fire Departments are covered, however, some of the Officers are NOT COVERED.” That in effect is saying the fire departments are not covered. What happens when a firefighter is first on scene and makes a decision? By the national incident management system, they’re then recognized as being the Incident Commander, at least until a higher ranker officer takes over. This leaves that firefighter liable for anything that happens. Without immunity, that firefighter will be left hanging out to dry. How can the State allow a firefighter, your good friend and neighbor, to be unjustly crucified by a civil law suit – simply because the majority of the committee members were uneducated in fire service standards?

State law that allegedly gives immunity to volunteers are hollow and not often upheld by the Courts.  Effective September 1 2010, 129 of these fire departments will lose their insurance coverage(s) for these types of events.  Many more will lose this coverage every month until all have lost it by June 30, 2011.  Because of the wording in WV State Code 23-4-2, no insurance carrier contacted wants to cover us.  A select committee was formed which spawned a sub-committee to look at the issue of possible changes to the State Code.  This Deliberate Intent sub-committee asked for and received feedback from the largest insurer of volunteer fire departments in the State, one of the largest in the Country – VFIS Insurance – which stated that changes had to be made in West Virginia laws and volunteer firefighters needed further immunities.  The subcommittee – chaired by the General Counsel of the State Insurance Commissioner – felt that volunteer fire departments already had immunity – this was an OPINION based on their research of cases and their interpretation of the existing laws.  THIS OPINION HOLDS NO BEARING IN A COURT OF LAW. Those who would have to defend the fire departments disagreed with this finding and put their concerns in writing.  The section of the State Code cited by the Insurance Commissioner’s General Counsel – 29-12A-3 of the West Virginia Code, has repeatedly been cited by fire departments as a defense and then struck down by judicial opinions – it is a statute with huge loopholes that offers little comfort and/or solace to volunteer fire departments.  We must go with the opinion of those who would have to defend us.

To date, no one has answered our key questions – (1) Why was this coverage dropped, especially if it is as they’ve stated, ‘no big deal’? – and, (2) If it is the opinion of the State that we have immunity based on cases and interpretations, why not just put it in a statute to make it clear to all who face the question in the future? One sentence. That’s all we’re asking for. One sentence added to existing State Code could fix this.

Without this broad form coverage, fire line officers and Board of Directors members will have to pay for their defenses out of their own pockets – even if they prevail and are found immune, their personal lives could be destroyed asserting their defense as they will have no insurance to cover legal fees and/or defense costs.  If they do not prevail, they could lose everything they own and have worked for all their lives due to a litigiously friendly court system.

Our communities need fire protection, yet, without the help from our government, our communities are in jeopardy of losing this protection. We want to serve our communities.  Many of us have done so for many years and have sacrificed much…time with our families, personal expense, and injuries.

The West Virginia Fallen Firefighter’s Memorial represents those firefighters who have given the ultimate sacrifice for fellow West Virginians. Many firefighters, volunteer and paid, have given their lives in the line of duty. Should we also give everything we own, simply because our State Government is unwilling to add one sentence to existing State Law?

We are being forced to decide between helping our communities and risking the safety and security of our own families.  For many of us, this is a choice that forces us to choose our families and our homes over our service to our communities.  No other public safety sector is faced with this liability.  We don’t like making this decision but if we are not granted statutory immunity that is clear and direct, then, as of September 1, 2010, many of our member departments have stated that they will be forced to stay at home when the alarm comes in.

At this time, the West Virginia State Firemen’s Association is walking away from the Committee that was established to work on this broad form liability issue. The committee did not reach a unanimous decision on this issue. Opposition to our request did not listen to the facts presented by Industry Professionals. Your volunteer fire departments must have immunity and we must have immunity NOW!

We ask that you, our neighbors, our friends and our family members, call the Governor’s office and tell them that you support your volunteer fire departments and for the Governor to help us get the immunity that we deserve!

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