By Jennifer Prohov and Kaishuo Zhao
March 10, 2016
This story was originally created for the Missouri School of Journalism.
Volunteer firefighters race head-on into danger everyday. But they’re now facing a new type of danger. Increasing costs for workers’ compensation insurance are forcing fire chiefs across mid-Missouri to cut corners, whether that be their number of volunteers or the quality of their equipment.
Larry Curtis, the fire chief of the Millersburg Fire Protection District, said he’s had to get by with what he has, but it isn’t enough.
“We have a tanker that’s 20 years old and it broke down on their fire today, normally it runs well for us, but that’s the problem with getting older equipment,” he said.
Curtis said he broke down and bought a newer rescue squad vehicle a year and a half ago because the one he had been using became too expensive to maintain and he couldn’t rely on it.
Even though workers’ compensation insurance is one of the biggest costs for these departments, Bryan Kunze, the fire chief of the Howard County Fire Protection District, said he couldn’t ask his volunteers to go out without it. But with the price increasing, the money has to come from somewhere.
“If your workers’ comp insurance has gone up say $3,000 or $4,000 for the year, then that’s that much less you’ve got to carry over into your equipment fund,” Kunze said.
David Hedrick, the director of the MU Fire and Rescue Training Institute, said there are costs that a department can’t cut back on, even though they have very limited budgets.
“You can imagine that fire department has to pay to put the fuel in their trucks, to keep the truck running, they have to have electricity to keep the power on and heat going in the winter time, plus firefighters’ equipment, protective clothing,” he said. “It’s highly expensive.”
Hedrick said that when you add all those factors together with the increased insurance costs, it will be difficult for them to be able to find funding to pay for those needs.
“It started about a year so or ago,” he said. “I think the insurance industry had taken a look at their risk, and to address that risk had increased workers’ comp policies, specifically on volunteer departments.”
Chiefs like Kenneth Hoover of the Little Dixie Fire Protection District in Audrain County have battled the increase by lowering their number of volunteers.
“The quality of service is affected because I don’t have what I call a full roster of 50, so we respond with less personnel, which means fewer personnel have to do more work,” he said.
That can make a situation more dangerous for the volunteers going in, he said.
Hoover currently has about 40 volunteers on his force. He said that if he were to bring that number back up to 50, he would have to pay approximately $10,000 more a year. He currently pays $25,000 to $30,000 a year for the coverage. Ten years ago, he said he paid about $1,000 to $1,500 for his full force of 50.
The rise has made workers’ compensation insurance his biggest operating expense, but he said he won’t operate without it.
“We’ve got to have it, and we’re going to pay it. The premiums are high and we don’t like that, but we’re not going to leave our firefighters out there unexposed and something happen and have a family that we have torn apart,” Hoover said.