California bill would cap, but guarantee, volunteer firefighter reimbursement

Bernie Paul, the South Yreka Fire Department Chief and President of the Siskiyou County Fire Chiefs Association, looks at a reimbursement form sent from the Office of Emergency Services. (News 10/Mike Marut)

A bill in the California legislature would cap, but guarantee, volunteer firefighter reimbursement at 20% of an annual firefighter's pay.

On Monday, the California Senate will vote to approve Assembly Bill 1299 to become California law. The bill would limit a volunteer firefighter's reimbursement at 20% of a full-time firefighter's annual pay unless the California Governor declares a fire a State of Emergency.

AB1299 would also guarantee the reimbursement would go through to firefighters. According to Matt Epstein, the California State Firefighters Association Legislation Committee Chair, the CSFA has had numerous reports from volunteer firefighters saying they were not given the reimbursement for their travel and machinery operation expenses or the payment was unreasonably delayed. Epstein says this bill aims to make sure money given from Office of Emergency Services to local fire districts/departments would go where it is designated.

The language of the bill includes the term "pass-through" money, meaning OES reimburses the department with reimbursement unofficially designated for services, machinery, travel and volunteer firefighter response. It is then up to the department to reimburse the money that is owed to the volunteers.

Once a volunteer firefighter responds to enough fires to reach the 20% cap, the volunteer is not allowed to respond to any other fires, unless declared a State of Emergency by the governor. The bill guarantees volunteer firefighters will be reimbursed within 45 days of when OES issues the payment to the fire district.

Siskiyou County Fire Chiefs Association President Bernie Paul says this bill will not benefit Siskiyou County in any way. The county has 300 volunteers and only 10 paid firefighters among 30 different fire departments - 27 of which are entirely volunteer. Paul has concerns the bill would discourage people from becoming volunteers in the first place.

"We start getting a lot of these little fires and that pay increases," Paul said. "Then we get later in the summer when we usually have our large, damaging fires, that's when we're going to see that limitation."

Paul added the volunteers in Siskiyou County typically get reimbursed within two weeks.

Paul, a volunteer for six years, is concerned volunteers would hit the 20% reimbursement cap earlier in the year, preventing them from responding to larger fires that may not be considered State of Emergency. However, Epstein says the bill positively impacts the big picture of firefighting.

"While the individual firefighter may be, I think on very rare occasions, restrained from the amount of time they are able to participate, there are more fire departments that are able to participate for more amount of time in general," Epstein said.

Paul, who has been a firefighter for more than 40 years (both paid and volunteer), believes the impact on Siskiyou County will be negative overall. Although the Klamathon Fire in 2018 was declared a State of Emergency and volunteers would not have been impacted by AB1299, Paul used it as an example of volunteer response and importance in the county. 19% of response on the Klamathon Fire came from OES and Local Government. This does not include Cal Fire response to the fire.

Another part of the bill Paul disagrees with discusses giving paid firefighters first choice at responding to a wildfire before volunteers. This impacts only three fire districts in Siskiyou County, but many more across the state. Paul believes it's a stratification of staff because of status, putting volunteers below full-time firefighters.

"That 20% has been misinterpreted in so many different ways," Epstein said. "This bill makes it really clear that it's 20% of the annual amount [of a career firefighter]."

Epstein also noted that if volunteers would be reimbursed more than that, fire districts would then have to consider California labor laws in regards to providing benefits and pay to what would be considered a full-time employee.

The bill has already passed the California Assembly and has gone through two readings in the Senate. Each house has unanimously approved the bill so far. On Monday, the Senate will have its third hearing on the bill in order to make it law.

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