Chaney to push for insurance for volunteer firefighters

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 14, 2008

For 19-year Culkin volunteer firefighter Kenny Pugh, changing times haven’t changed the essence of being an emergency call away from the next harrowing trip through a burning structure.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, people run out of a house on fire. What are we doing? We’re running in!,” Pugh said.

And they do it as volunteers.

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If things change the way state Commissioner of Insurance and State Fire Marshal Mike Chaney of Vicksburg wants, grizzled veterans and energetic newbies in volunteer fire districts around the state might be in line for benefits after the session of the Legislature that begins next month.

Chaney has initiated a push for term-life insurance policies for the state’s 13,326 volunteer firefighters.

“When I go around to volunteer fire departments, I see a few at 19 or 20 years old and then I see a lot of 45-, 55- and 65-year-old people,” Chaney told the Vicksburg Lions Club earlier this month. “If you want young people to be volunteer firemen, you’ve got to have some benefits.”

Warren County has six volunteer departments that cover all of Warren County outside Vicksburg’s city limits.

Chaney, a four-term state lawmaker from Warren County before his election as insurance commissioner in 2007, said the likeliest mechanism for financing a benefit for survivor families of volunteer fire personnel would be the State Fire Rebate Insurance Program, which pays for trucks and facility improvements at city and county fire departments using a 3 percent tax on all fire insurance premiums.

Because they are not government employees, volunteer firefighters do not receive the same benefits as paid municipal firefighters. Those trained as emergency medical technicians take their personal vehicles to accident scenes — at a cost dependant on gasoline prices. Locally, the lone benefit is a privately administered plan that covers a portion of salaries, Warren County Fire Coordinator Kelly Worthy said.

“Any benefit would be ahead of what we have,” Worthy said.

Local chiefs and volunteers agree wholeheartedly, particularly where spouses and children would be in line for the benefits available over a period of time to defray dependent care costs and funeral expenses, among other things.

“If I died, she’d be taken care of,” Culkin’s incoming chief Gerry Briggs said, pointing to his wife, Kelly, also a volunteer.

“It would be something good that’s really needed,” Fisher Ferry Volunteer Fire Department assistant chief Tommy Stewart said. “It all just costs us a lot with gas and everything else.”

Area legislators indicated their support would come easy if a measure passes the Insurance Committee in each chamber. 

“I’m on board with it,” Rep. Alex Monsour, R-Vicksburg, mentioned by Chaney as a likely supporter. “I think it’ll work and don’t have any problems with it.”

“If the volunteers are for it, then I’ll get behind it,” said Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg.

Finding ways to pay for additional benefits as budget forecasts predict lower tax collections will present a challenge to all insurance measures, said House Insurance Committee Chairman Walter Robinson, D-Bolton.

“I have no problem with it, but what’s the cost going to be?,” Robinson said, adding the idea is one of many in the insurance realm percolating before the session begins Jan. 6. “I’d have to put a pencil to it.”

Funds available to local fire departments from the rebate program totaled $14.7 million this year, up from $13.5 million last year and the most collected since the fund started in 1988. Hikes in the rebates have indicated a rise in fire insurance policies sold in a given year.

Mississippi leads the nation in fire deaths annually per capita. However, the 60 reported through Dec. 9 was down slightly from a year ago, MID spokesman Donna Cromeans said.

Chaney’s office conducted 666 investigations of suspicious fires in fiscal 2008, with 387 of the inquiries in rural areas where volunteer crews are often the norm.


Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at