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Bakken firefighters facing more obstacles, future legislation could cause issues

By Jason Spiess

Last week I received an email from a concerned fire fighter in Western North Dakota.  I have to admit, this email really got my attention.  Honestly, I receive anywhere from 2-10 emails per week from readers and listeners to Building the Bakken informing me about something or another.  Most are politically or personally motivated so you have to read between the lines, but this email stood out amongst the stack of political donations, fracking and environmental themed Bakken “leads.”

This volunteer fire fighter, who asked to remain anonymous, said their department is possibly facing a huge issue with the new Affordable Care Act.  At first glance I figured it was politically motivated.  So I fired back an email asking to meet in person to discuss further.  It wasn’t more than a minute later I got my response, “Sure, how’s Wed next week?  And here is a link to a letter every fire association sent the IRS.”

Since this volunteer fire fighter was not from Nigeria asking for bail money, I clicked on the link.  It was a letter to The Honorable Daniel Werfel, Acting Commissioner for the Internal Revenue Service,  from Chief William R. Metcalf, EFO, CFO, MIFireE, President and Chairman of the Board, IAFC.   It looked well above my pay grade.  Just look at all those acronyms after Metcalf, and the IRS executive is called “honorable”; excuse me “Honorable.”  I can see why this fire fighter wanted to remain anonymous.

The juicy part of the letter, or hook as we sometimes say in the media biz, relates to the portion of the ACA that “requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees to provide health insurance to full-time employees or face a tax penalty.”  Furthermore the email read, “The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has determined that for tax purposes, volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel are “employees” of the agencies that they serve.  With passage of the ACA, however, volunteer fire and EMS departments could end up being required to provide health insurance to volunteer personnel who “work” for the agency they serve for 30 or more hours per week on a regular basis.”

I thought for a moment if that would even remotely effect North Dakota fire fighters.  Could it?  Then I remembered covering the Bucyrus wildfire in 2012.  Those firefighters racked up 30 hours in less than 2 days.  The number of crashes the oil patch has seen in the past five years alone has to have these volunteers over 30.  Then I started thinking about their employers and the rock those business owners and managers must be in.  Try telling a volunteer fire fighter their job is in jeopardy because they are spending too much time out in the community saving lives.  Good luck with that and let me know how sharp those pitchforks are and how hot are the torches.

I thought even if the Affordable Care Act angle wasn’t as it seemed and was misunderstood, there were enough daily volunteer fire fighter realities to warrant an investigation or at least a column about this subchapter of emergency services.

During my last loop through Bismarck, Washburn, New Town, Killdeer, Bowman, Dickinson, and back to Bismarck, I spoke with a variety of volunteer fire fighters, city leaders, business owners and emergency service administrators.  I wasn’t able to add the Watford City or Williston area to the loop due to Highway 22 became a skating rink and the Highway Department shut it down.  The volunteer fire fighters were particularly busy on that day, working in horizontal snow in below zero temperatures a week before Thanksgiving.

“We are very grateful for their services to the communities,” North Dakota Fire Fighter Association executive director Renee Loh said.  “That service is vital and very important to the security of those communities.”

Loh continued with examples noting the time fire fighters put in, the extensive training, the long hours, the stress put on the employers and the number of family sacrifices.

“When you think of the time and training and effort and family hours that the fire fighters give the state of North Dakota, it is very inspiring,” Loh said. “Fire fighting is a science, if you don’t know and understand what you are doing you are going to hurt someone.”

Currently, 96% of all fire fighters in North Dakota are volunteers and will respond to anything from a chemical spill to an auto accident to an explosion, Loh said.  Not mention the old run of the mill house fire.

“Some of those departments are being called out up to six times a day,” Loh said, “And so you have to think of the magnitude of how much the infrastructure has changed in recent years in North Dakota and how much more of this time it has taken to respond.”

Loh continued, “Another concern is, previous to the oil boom the employer understood and they [fire fighters] could go out and respond, however now you are looking at dynamics of returning from one call only to be called on another, which can become a difficult situation.”

Emergency services have become stressed and understaffed to the point the Vision West ND Project cited it as one of five immediate needs for the state.  Personally I can believe it.   I can tell you first hand there is a map being presented at conferences across the region with colored areas in parts of North Dakota  “where not to get into an accident” due to length of response time and lack of services.

ND state legislature Vicky Steiner said the North Dakota Oil and Gas Producing Counties Association has allocated some dollars towards addressing emergency service issues and is currently reviewing two business plans from DLN Consulting.  The plans involve setting up an emergency station on or near the Highway 22 and 85 intersections.

“Our association decided to address a pretty severe situation in the Manadree and Alexander area,” Steiner said. “The travel time is much further than… well, it just is not a very good place to get into an accident.”

Steiner reminded me that these things do not happen as quickly as everyone would like because there are a number of tentacles involved.  Minor or major station affects the number of employees; the number of employees affects annual budgets, jurisdictions, etc.

“We are looking at all those details right now because the volunteers are really stressed in that area and are covering a lot of accidents,” Steiner said.  “The volunteer system worked so well for so long but they are really getting stretched thin, we have to give them some relief there.”

Steiner said the results and details of the project will be announced soon to the public, but she did share a few topics they are bantering around: paramedics, EMTs, Energy Impact Funding and full time staff positions in or near Alexander or Mandaree.

Back to the health insurance mandate for volunteer fire fighters email.  After reading it one more time, I had to ask myself, “with 96% of all North Dakota fire fighters and 75% of the country’s fire fighters being volunteers, departments are making two dollars work as ten dollars, oil patch accidents are not halting for government timelines, volunteers are stretched and dwindling, are they really expected to add the cost of health insurance too?”

I asked Loh if she had heard anything of this letter submitted to the IRS or the Affordable Care Act in regards to fire fighting.   She was aware and concerned.

“Right now it is very unclear how it will affect,” Loh said.  “It may be some or it may be none.”

Loh said they are working closely with the National Volunteer Fire Council on this issue because there are so many variables that go into whether a volunteer reaches 30 hours a week.   Fire fighters, assistance personnel, people to maintain the equipment and buildings are just a few of the roster members in any given community.  Each community’s roster size and scope is different due to jurisdictional policies and regulations.

“We are very concerned that it not affect the North Dakota fire fighters, because they have their fuel costs, equipment costs and all there other expenses they need to pay for,” Loh said.  “And these are volunteers, if they would be required to pay for health care on top of that, where would they get that funding?”

Loh said the North Dakota Fire Fighter’s Association, the other 50 state directors and the National Volunteer Fire Fighters Council have sent a letter to the President of the United States, the Vice President and the director of the IRS, along with ND’s Congressional teams, saying they need to exempt the fire fighters from this part of the Affordable Care Act.

Loh has been in communication with the communities of North Dakota throughout the correspondence.  Darrin Limesand volunteers for the Bowman Volunteer fire department and acts their Secretary.  Limesand had received the letter from the state Fire Fighters Association and was “hoping it would have gone away by now.”  After a brief discussion about all the ins and outs of the ramifications of this in Bowman, Limesand and I did a quick math lesson in case this enacted in March 2014.

Conservatively speaking, if Bowman had to insure just two people on their roster at $800/mo., which would equal approximately $1600/mo and $19,200/yr.

“That would be about one-sixth of our annual budget.”  Limesand said.  “I have no idea what we would even do.”

These fire fighters are ordinary men being asked to perform extraordinary duties.  When you stop and think about it, these volunteers –men and women –are already stretched thin due to the speed of society, and are still realistically, are on call 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week.  These volunteers work other  jobs too.  Jobs that pay bills. They perform annual hours of training and live drill sessions, too.  Loh gave an example of a training weekend in Northeast North Dakota where everyone of the volunteers put in several days of time, away from their families.

If the above laundry list of issues weren’t enough, then there is the major issue of dwindling volunteers.   There are a variety of reasons for the depleting numbers, but it is happening across the Upper Midwest.  In fact, last month while in the Black Hills covering a story, I heard anecdotally from several professionals there have been a couple fire service calls in the Hills gone without response due to so many volunteer fire fighters working in the oil patch.

When I told that story to the emergency service folks I spoke to for this column, they all said it wasn’t surprising at all and very believable.

“North Dakota is seeing an issue of not having enough people volunteering to serve on the fire departments,” Loh said.  “When you look at the Watford City, Williston and Dickinson areas and what they are dealing with on a daily basis with volunteers, they need to be commended daily.  You have to ask, however, how long before they are just totally burned out from what they are dealing with?”

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