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Volunteer Fire Departments Soon May Bill Insurers

February 8, 2012

By Sherese A. Gore
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Two bills moving through the General Assembly would authorize volunteer fire departments to charge homeowners’ insurance policies after responding to fire-related emergencies.

One measure is House Bill 1202, sponsored by Delegate Joseph Johnson, D-Abingdon. It unanimously passed the House on Wednesday.

Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Tazewell, is sponsoring an identical proposal – Senate Bill 140. It unanimously passed the Senate on Friday.

Amendments to both bills would require insurers to provide coverage for services provided by volunteer fire departments. The departments could not bill more than the limit of the policy holder’s coverage.

A quiet afternoon at the all-volunteer Rocky Mount (Va.) Fire Department

Puckett, a 30-year member of the Lebanon Fire Department in Russell County, said some volunteer departments are facing severe financial problems.

“All the volunteers are trying to do is cover some of their additional expenses that are not being covered by localities,” Puckett said.

Volunteer fire departments, which rely on unpaid trained personnel, are often in rural areas or localities with limited resources. With increased fuel costs and fire equipment that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, survival of these departments depends on a mixture of local and state funds as well as charitable contributions.

“If it wasn’t for private donations, we could not operate for the full year,” said Chief Charlie Robertson of the Rocky Mount Fire Department in Franklin County.

His sentiments were echoed by Ronald McClure, fire chief of the Dublin Fire Department in Pulaski County. His department relies on a mixture of paid and volunteer firefighters.

“We do a fundraiser usually once a year and every other year, and we get some funding from the county and some from the town,” McClure said.

Because of the economy, he said, donations to his department have dropped by a third.

While volunteer departments have tried to collect from homeowners in the past, those attempts have been challenged by Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli.

In a 2011 opinion, Cuccinelli determined that state law does not allow volunteer fire departments to bill insurance companies.

That’s why Puckett and Johnson submitted their legislation.

“The purpose of the bill is to try to make fully legal what really has been happening for some time,” said David Bailey of David Bailey Associates, a lobbying firm that represents firefighters at the General Assembly.

Puckett said he wants to assure homeowners that the purpose of the legislation is not to discourage them from calling their local departments for fear of being billed.

“Most volunteer fire departments are saying, ‘Look, we’re here doing this voluntarily, and if you call us, we’re coming.’”


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