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Volunteer firefighters question consistency of coverage

Volunteer fire station

Volunteer firefighters who get injured or sick on the job were not always afforded the same types of workers compensation benefits as their paid counterparts, but much has changed over the years with many states now recognizing presumptive occupational injuries for volunteers. 

Comp presumptions still vary by state, however, and not everything is created equal when it comes to volunteer firefighting. 

“There’s not parity, which is the fundamental problem,” said Terrence Hannigan, general counsel to the Firefighters Association of the State of New York. 

New York volunteer firefighters who get sick on the job petition for comp benefits through the long-standing Volunteer Firefighters Benefits Law, not the state’s comp statute, Mr. Hannigan said.

“It’s essentially a fraternal twin,” he said. “It’s almost identical to comp but it’s its own structure. The language used in the statutes is very similar.”

Paid firefighters covered via the comp law, though, can often collect more money than volunteers. 

And it wasn’t until 2006 that lung cancer was added as a presumptive occupational injury for volunteer firefighters. Until that point, “you had a huge battle to demonstrate causation,” he said. 

In 2018, Mr. Hannigan said, New York enacted a separate law covering other cancers for all firefighters.

“There was pushback from local governments other than fire districts to not include additional coverages in the VFBL,” he said.

Mr. Hannigan said volunteer firefighters in New York continue to push for legislative reform that would put their benefits on par with career firefighters. 

“Right now, we don’t have that,” he said. 

In Virginia and Pennsylvania, volunteer firefighters are essentially considered “employees” for purposes of collecting benefits, with volunteers covered under the respective states’ comp statutes. 

“Why would anybody work and go out and fight fires if they weren’t covered,” Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, volunteer fire chief Kenneth Schauder said on the importance of comp presumptive eligibility for volunteers.

Mr. Schauder, who also serves as mayor of Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, said volunteer firefighters should be treated the same as paid firefighters since they do the same job. 

In Virginia, volunteer firefighters are now comp eligible for cancer, but it wasn’t always that way, said State Sen. Jeremy McPike, himself a longtime volunteer firefighter. 

“The barrier was so high, yet the data time and time again … kept piling up,” he said. 

Today, at least 23 states have cancer presumptions for volunteer firefighters, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.