Enhancing Volunteer Fire Fighter Pension & Increasing Disability Fee
By T.J. Nedrow, WSFFA Legislative Chairman. firstname.lastname@example.org
Tamara Warnke, Lobbyist
- The proposed legislation will increase the base pension benefits available to volunteer firefighters, reserve officers and workers in emergency medical service districts at the time of retirement and eliminates the current cap of twenty-five (25) pension payments.
- Additionally, the proposed legislation would increase the current annual fee for pension enrollment and the mandatory disability (a.k.a. relief) coverage that is paid by fire departments to cover medical expenses for volunteers who may be injured while performing their duties.
Summary of proposed 2020 legislation: The bill would:
- Increase the base pension by $50, from $300 a month to $350 which will affect current and future retirees. The increase will appear on the pension payment following the July 1, 2020 effective date;
- Remove the cap of 25 pension payments. This benefit change has an effective date of January 1, 2022; members will not be able to purchase buybacks for years prior to the effective date;
- Increase annual pension contribution rate from $60 to $90 with an effective date of July 1, 2020;
- Increase annual disability rate from $30 to $50 with an effective date of July 1, 2020.
- The disability rate was last increased in 2005.
- The pension contribution amount was last increased in 1992.
- The pension plan exists to provide an incentive to keep members active for longer periods of time and to give the officers some leverage to keep them participating in training, duty shifts and responses.
Demographics of the Washington Volunteer Firefighters, Reserve Officers, and Emergency Workers (2019)
- There are approximately 11,000 volunteer firefighters and 65 emergency medical workers throughout the state.
- There are approximately 190 reserve police officers throughout the state.
- The average age of volunteer firefighter is 41-42 years old with the average total years of service at 10.8 years. Per Board of Volunteer Firefighters & Reserve Officers 2018.
- The annual fees for the reserve officers and the emergency medical services district volunteers would continue to be set on an annual basis by the Board of Volunteer Firefighters & Reserve Officers.
Enhancing Volunteer Firefighter Pension & Increasing Disability Fee
Washington Volunteer Firefighter Benefit Background
The Board of Volunteer Firefighters & Reserve Officers (BVFFRO) currently provides relief (disability) and pension benefits for volunteer firefighters, reserve police officers and emergency workers who belong to regularly organized volunteer fire departments, law enforcement agencies and emergency medical districts.
PENSION – The BVFFRO provides a current maximum vested pension benefit of $300 a month after twenty-five (25) years of service and twenty-five (25) payments at the minimum age of 65.
- The pension benefit is optional, the annual fee is $60 per volunteer, which is either paid in full by the volunteer or is split 50/50 with participating fire departments.
RELIEF/DISABILITY – The current annual fee for mandatory relief coverage is paid by the fire department, is $30 per volunteer. “Relief” includes all medical, death and disability benefits available that are made necessary from sickness, death, injury, or disability arising from the performance of duty.
BVFFRO Pension & Disability Revenue Sources: 40% percent of the fire insurance premium tax is allocated to the BVFFRO pension & relief fund in addition to the annual premiums paid by municipalities.
Fiscal Impact: The State Actuary’s Office determines the cost of changes to the benefit fund. There will be no increase in administrative costs to the agency.
Stakeholders: The Washington State Fire Fighters’ Association, in collaboration with the Board of Volunteer Firefighters & Reserve Officers.
Washington State Fire Fighters’ Association
Tamara Warnke @ 360-490-1159 email@example.com or
T.J. Nedrow (Leg. Chairman) @ 360-359-6270 firstname.lastname@example.org
Board of Volunteer Firefighters & Reserve Officers
Hailey Blankenship, Executive Secretary @ 360-753-7318 email@example.com
Expanding the Definition of “Firefighter” for Volunteer Fire Departments
Brief Description: Legislation would expand the definition of “Firefighter” in RCW 41.24 for volunteer fire departments to include critical fire ground personnel that do not perform suppression duties.
Background: The Board for Volunteer Firefighters and Reserve Officers (BVFF&RO) provides relief and pension benefits for members of regularly organized volunteer fire departments and law enforcement agencies. Members who serve and make monthly retirement contributions for a period of at least 10 years are eligible to receive a pension benefit at age 60. Relief benefits include payment of medical expenses and disability pensions for members injured in the performance of duty and payment of burial expenses and survivor benefits for members killed in the performance of duty.
Employers are required to participate in the death, disability, and medical benefit plans offered by the BVFF&RO, but participation in the pension component is optional. About 11,000 members are covered by the death, disability, and medical benefits and approximately 11,000 members are covered by the pension benefits. Revenues to the fund come from a 40 percent share of the premium tax paid on fire insurance policies issued within the state; contributions from volunteer firefighters, emergency medical workers, and reserve officers; contributions from participating municipal corporations and emergency service district; and returns on the investment of moneys in the Fund.
Summary of Legislation: This bill would expand the definition of “firefighter” to allow all members of fire departments that respond to emergency calls, have assigned tasks at emergency scenes, and participate in emergency training, to be covered for relief and pension benefits offered by the BVFF&RO. After surveying departments, it was determined that the passage of this bill may add approximately 1,800 additional members to the BVFF&RO system.
Examples of the additional members that would be covered are Public Information Officers, Fire Investigators and Chaplains. It would also clarify that members of regional fire authorities are eligible for participation.
Stakeholder Input: The Washington State Fire Fighters’ Association, the Washington Fire Commissioners Association, and the Washington Fire Chiefs all worked cooperatively, with input from the Washington State Board for Volunteer Firefighters & Reserve Officers to draft the proposed legislation.
Presumptive Occupational Diseases Coverage for Volunteer Firefighters
Questions have arisen regarding the need for Presumptive Occupational Diseases Coverage for Volunteer Firefighters in Washington State. This abbreviated white paper describes the history and hurdles surrounding this very important issue that has yet to be formally addressed with legislative action.
Background: Under Washington State’s Industrial Insurance Act (Act), a worker who, in the course of employment, is injured or suffers disability from an occupational disease is entitled to certain benefits. To prove an occupational disease, the worker must show that the disease arose “naturally and proximately” out of employment.
For career firefighters who are members of the Law Enforcement Officer & Fire Fighters (LEOFF) pension system and certain private sector firefighters, there is a presumption that certain medical conditions are occupational diseases. Those conditions are: respiratory disease; certain heart problems; specified cancers; and infectious diseases. In the case of LEOFF member, presumptive legislation was originally enacted in 1987.
With respect to heart problems, the problems must be experienced within 72 hours of exposure to smoke, fumes, or toxic substances; or experienced within 24 hours of strenuous physical exertion due to firefighting activities.
The presumption of occupational disease may be rebutted by a preponderance of evidence, including, but not limited to: use of tobacco products; physical fitness and weight; lifestyle; hereditary factors; and exposure from other employment or non-employment activities.
In general, firefighters who are members of LEOFF are those persons actively employed and serving on a full-time, fully compensated basis as a member of a fire department. Presumptive occupational disease coverage does not include volunteer firefighters & first responders.
Current Outlook: Providing Coverage for Volunteer Firefighters is becoming more critical and more plausible. 2019 NFFF reports that 41 states & DC have some form of benefit or recognition when firefighters and cancer are linked and only about half manage financial benefits through a type of Worker’s Comp program. 22 States extend coverage to volunteers. Most would argue that volunteers deserve to be treated equally when it comes to disability coverage. However, there are different variables to consider between the LEOFF system’s career firefighters and volunteers in the Board for Volunteer Firefighters & Reserve Officers (BVFF&RO) system In our opinion, extending presumptive occupational coverage for firefighters covered by BVFF&RO is more complex than one might believe. The major differences are:
The LEOFF system provides disability coverage through L&I; BVFF&RO system provides coverage for volunteers through a private entity at a cost that’s currently less expensive than L&I LEOFF premiums;
Fiduciary Differences: The BVFF&RO system comingles funds (fire insurance premiums, department/volunteer contributions) to provide disability coverage, pension benefits, and Line of Duty Death (LODD) benefits. The LEOFF system provides disability coverage via L&I’s accident fund – a completely separate funding source for claim pay out than from pension benefit pool;
Fiscal Implications: If presumptive coverage legislation for volunteers were to be considered, a state actuary would need to assess the liquidity of the BVFF&RO system and the financial implications that presumptive coverage would have on the system prior to legislation being introduced. A request for an actuarial analysis must come from a lawmaker or agency and is a lengthy process;
Presumptive coverage for volunteers comes at a cost, which will ultimately increase premium costs to local governments, fire departments, and volunteers. This cost increase will generate a significant fiscal note, which is a HUGE roadblock in the Legislature at this time.
Data Collection and Empirical Evidence: Before bringing forward any request for legislation to cover volunteers, data needs to be collected in order to validate and support the need for the expansion of coverage (i.e., frequency and number of exposures per year, toxins/chemical types, etc.) and demonstrate prevalence. This in itself must have legislative support, and that of the BVFF&RO;
Primary Occupation vs. Secondary Occupation: As we see it, herein lies the debate, and is the largest determining factor between providing presumptive coverage for volunteer versus career firefighters. It’s been much easier to make the argument that career firefighters’ are exposed to smoke, fumes, and/or toxic substances when responding, because it is their primary occupation, unlike the volunteer. It is much more difficult for the volunteer to validate an occupational exposure claim, based on a presumption that the disease is a result of exposure during firefighting, when the firefighting activities are secondary to the volunteer’s primary occupation. Filtering out other contributing factors becomes more difficult and must be documented to a level acceptable to the system that currently does not recognize presumptions;
Other Issues to Consider: It is important to know the history of how the State Council of Fire Fighter was able to influence the passage of legislation to allow presumptive occupational disease coverage for career firefighters.
The political landscape was completely different back-in-the-day when the enabling legislation was passed by the Legislature to provide LEOFF & some private sector firefighters with presumptive occupational disease coverage.
The economy was booming, the state general fund was robust and had a “rainy day” revenue surplus, and most importantly, both the Senate and House were controlled by the Democrats with a comfortable margin. The Democrat controlled Legislature was more inclined to favor labor issues and to addressing their needs.
The proposal took years of lobbying, prep work, and data collection before a compromised bill was passed by the Legislature in 1987, then amended in 2002 and 2007. The bill(s) were highly controversial between R’s and D’s, not because of philosophy, but out of consideration of the fiscal impact to affected entities (local gov’t., fire departments, employees). There was controversy and concern over which positions to cover or not (i.e. fire investigators, paramedics, etc.), which diseases to include on list of covered illness, and a host of other points of contention.
And, the fact that both HB 1602 & HB 1603 (referred to earlier) did not advance to the House floor, in a chamber that is narrowly controlled by the D’s, in our opinion, demonstrates that this issue is still controversial and not viewed by the majority of the Legislators as a priority at this time.
In that same vein, the same conclusion can be made with respect to expanding presumptive coverage for volunteers currently covered under the BVFF&RO system.
In closing, we hope you found this report to be informative and substantive on the topic of presumptive occupational disease coverage as it relates to the volunteer BVFF&RO system and the career LEOFF system.
The Washington State Fire Fighters’ Association, the Washington Fire Commissioners Association, and the Washington Fire Chiefs all would need to work collaboratively, with input from the Washington State Board for Volunteer Firefighters & Reserve Officers to draft the proposed legislation.
With the mission of the Washington State Fire Fighters’ Association (WSFFA), “To provide information, education, benefits and representation to the volunteer fire service of the State of Washington in order to enhance their capabilities and professionalism,” WSFFA is focusing on the following State legislative arena.
2020-21 WSFFA LEGISLATIVE TARGETS
Legislative Priority: Enhancing Volunteer Firefighter Pension & Increasing Disability Fee.
Description: Increase the base pension benefits available to volunteer firefighters, reserve officers and emergency workers at the time of retirement and would eliminate the current cap of twenty-five (25) pension payments.
Legislative Priority: Extending the age to which the volunteer may be enrolled in the BVFF&RO Pension Program.
Description: Creating a Longevity Pension Bonus for the volunteer choosing to remain active longer in the volunteer fire service. The ideal targets are volunteers who have recorded 25+ years of qualified service. The goal is to allow members to continue to volunteer and make pension contributions after they are 100% vested in the State offered Board of Volunteer Firefighters & Reserve Officers program.
Legislative Priority: Expansion of the current definition of a volunteer firefighter
Description: Expands the definition of volunteers who are to receive disability coverage and pension benefits through the BVFF & RO (Ref. RCW 41.24). Legislation will include reference to position functions common in the local incident command system. The expansion would cover approximately 1,800 volunteers including PIO’s, chaplains, and fire investigators. Funding shall not be of a State general fund nature.
Legislative Priority: Establish presumptive occupational disease medical coverage for volunteer firefighters.
Description: Providing volunteer firefighter occupational presumptive disease coverage. While specific numbers are not known, volunteer firefighters are being diagnosed with cancer. The WSFFA is working with the Board of Volunteer Firefighter & Reserve Officers, Washington Fire Commissioners Association, and Washington Fire Chiefs in collecting data and formulating a strategy that results in new legislation; i.e. establishment of medical coverage for specific, presumptive occupational-related illness.
Legislative Priority: Establish disability coverage for administrative volunteers.
Description: Disability coverage for the administrative volunteer. The bill was previously HB 1905 in the 2013 session. This fiscally neutral (general fund) legislation would offer the volunteer or their department to acquire coverage though the BVFF. Provides for approximately 1,500 volunteers. Cost of such coverage remains higher through commercial coverage at the local agency level.
Legislative Priority: Washington State Fire Training Academy funding
Description: The Fire Training Academy is more than 39 years old and in dire need of infrastructure improvements. The State Fire Marshal’s office has identified more than $14+ million in upgrades deliver on basic firefighting training. State and federal funding is necessary to deliver all phases of training to all firefighters.
WASHINGTON STATE FIRE FIGHTERS’ ASSOCIATION OVER ARCHING PRIORITIES
The WSFFA bases its legislative efforts and support in the six following areas:
- Adequate, safe fire suppression, emergency medical & rescue equipment, apparatus and personal protective equipment.
- Sufficient fire station accommodations.
- Adoption of and funding health and wellness standards, accessibility to recognized to best practice programs, including cancer occupational disease awareness and prevention programs.
- Adherence to basic fire ground safety standards.
- FIREFIGHTER TRAINING
- Adequate and accessible basic Firefighter 1 level training to all volunteers.
- Realistic and supported training opportunities to comply with industry standards.
- COMPENSATION – BENEFITS
- Compensation for committed hours on declared State level-mobilization events.
- Occupational Disease/Presumptive cancer coverage for all active qualified volunteer firefighters.
- Promote and offer a cafeteria style of state and local level volunteer benefits.
- Maintain appropriate volunteer pension benefit levels.
- VOLUNTEER RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION
- Increased existing recruitment efforts and enhance statewide retention efforts.
- FIRE SERVICE FUNDING
- Adequate funding levels that allowing local jurisdictions to accomplish and deliver on their fire protection mission to the communities they serve.
- Funding of Washington Fire Training Academy infrastructure improvements.
- Collaboration with fire service members, affiliate agencies, organizations and policy makers.