CENTRAL POINT, Ore. — Fire departments across the state and across the country are battling new rules that could force them to reshuffle or downsize their teams of volunteer firefighters.
They say new health care requirements and limitations in how much they can compensate are making it harder to hold onto them. And for some rural departments, it could affect their entire force.
Nearly 90% of Oregon’s fire departments rely mostly or entirely on volunteers.
Jamus Quintana, a volunteer with Fire District 3 in Central Point, says most get into it because they love the job.
“The money part really isn’t an incentive for me,” said Quintana. “My incentive is to come here and do my part for the community.”
Quintana and his colleagues are reimbursed expenses based on a set of maximum limits called an Accountable Plan.
But some departments would prefer to give more.
“The amount of time they have to give up from their family, they’d like to get a little bit of money,” said Fire District 3 Chief Dan Petersen. “Not as a job, but enough to offset that.”
These are usually small amounts – $100 or so a month; sometimes as little as $100 a year. But that added incentive is something many rural department heads rely upon to attract volunteers.
Now they’re finding themselves in a dilemma.
“If you pay more than an accountable plan, sometimes you’re subject to health benefits, PERS retirement, and they’re classified as an employee,” said Petersen.
The new rules in the Affordable Care Act specify anybody classified as an employee must receive health insurance. And if that happens, fire chiefs say it could create a domino effect that results in them having to pay years worth of retroactive PERS and payroll tax payments for those employees.
They say that leaves two choices — pay more than the department can afford, or stop offering incentives.
“They’re afraid if they have to take all of that away and drop them back to a straight accountable [plans], that they’re going to lose half or more of their volunteer firefighters,” said Petersen.
Now, fire departments across the state are relying on a nine-person task force to sort it all out. The small group of department heads and legal counsels was formed this year to settle the definition of an emergency volunteer once and for all.
But that process, which has already been going on since April, has no end in sight.
Meanwhile volunteers like Quintana say they want to just keep doing their labor of love.
“If I never get hired that’s fine,” said Quintana. “I just love to volunteer here, I love to do the job.”