The Wyoming lawmakers wants to entice more people to become volunteer firefighters and hope a new $150,000 recruitment film will help bolster rosters across the state.
The Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee has passed a bill authorizing the State Fire Marshal and Department of Workforce Services to produce a $150,000 promotional film to help recruit more volunteer firefighters. The committee-sponsored bill passed with a 7-5 vote and moves on to the 2024 legislative session.
Shad Cooper, president of the Wyoming Fire Advisory Board, told the committee a recent survey of fire departments statewide shows that Wyoming could use about 500 more firefighters for agencies around the state to be fully staffed.
The same survey found that most of the state’s fire departments rely solely on volunteers and are experiencing challenges recruiting new members. Some departments report needing as much as a 71% increase in their staff size and others report having 16-20 members with fewer than five years of experience.
The committee also unanimously approved legislation allowing volunteer firefighters, emergency medical technician providers and search and rescue workers to participate in the group insurance plan for state employees and officials.
“There’s definitely a strong need to provide incentives and recruitment and retention benefits for our firefighters,” Cooper said. “This is one of several approaches that we’re trying to implement, and I think it’s going to be very effective. And personally, I think it will help to recruit firefighters statewide.”
The movie can be up to 20 minutes long and is to be made available to the public upon its completion. The fire marshal is authorized to contract with a public relations firm to assist in making the video, which could begin as soon as July 2024.
Wyoming State Fire Marshall Byron Matthews said his department already put in a request to fund the film within its upcoming biennial budget request with the governor’s office, but he said they were told it would be best to pursue the money legislatively.
The Wyoming Travel and Tourism Office has a budget for film-related marketing, but it is unlikely this fund could justifiably be tapped into to recruit volunteer firefighters.
State Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, voted against the legislation, but proposed the idea of saving money by having high school filmmakers make the video for free.
Matthews said it will be critical that the film is marketed to the right audiences to ensure recruitment is successful.
Under the health insurance expansion, those who elect to enroll cannot already be insured. Cooper, also a fire administrator in Sublette County, said this stipulation by itself would eliminate many of his volunteer firefighters.
“Our hope is that this is a recruitment tool and that it will bring some people in that would not have signed up to be a volunteer,” Baldwin said. “It will be something we add to over time.”
Volunteer firefighters participating in the state plan shall pay their group insurance premiums in their entirety and not receive any employer contributions to cover their premiums. The state also will not contribute funds the way it does for paid firefighters.
The costs will be $1,051 per individual and $2,436 for a family per month with a $900 deductible. With a $4,000 deductible, the cost drops to $889 for an individual and $2,059 for a family.
Rep. Dan Zwonizter, R-Cheyenne, committee co-chair, was hesitant about adding EMS and search and rescue volunteers to this coverage because of the substantial size of this increase to those who are covered.
The enrollment itself will be voluntary, so Ralph Hays, program manager for the state employees' group Insurance program, said it’s difficult at this point to project how much it will cost the state until the program is up and running.
Sen. Fred Baldwin, R-Kemmerer, the other committee co-chair, said there is a “tremendous shortage” of volunteer EMTs and search and rescue workers in Wyoming. He doesn’t anticipate the additional coverage would initially be a large boost for attracting volunteers.
There are 311 volunteer EMTs in Wyoming. Many search and rescue organizations like the ones in Teton and Park counties are run by their local sheriff’s departments. According to information provided to the committee in April, there are 186 search and rescue volunteers on the state’s pension plan.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.