Augusta County volunteer firefighters fighting for better insurance coverage

AUGUSTA COUNTY, Va., (WHSV) -- When the call comes in, first responders head out.

With an average of 16,000 emergency calls per year in Augusta County, the risk first repsonders face is high.

"Most challenging job I've ever had, but I'll tell you, it really, truly is the most rewarding as well," former Swoope Fire Chief Kevin Wilkes said.

Wilkes is just one of the around 600 emergency volunteers in Augusta County who does not get paid for his service.

"I ask them to get out of bed in the middle of the night when it's raining sideways, leave their family to go put their lives on the line. For free. And then go home and take a shower to go to work. But that's not it. Then, I tell them on the weekend, I need you to go sell hoagies or spaghetti dinners or bingos," Wilkes said.

Volunteer and career staff are held to the same standards of training and certification.

"I would challenge you to pick out which one has a degree and which one doesn't. I would challenge you to pick out which one is getting a paycheck and which one isn't," Wilkes said.

Even though they aren't being paid, volunteers take pride in serving their community.

The county does offer other incentives, including free training; an annual contribution to help with operational and utilities costs; fuel reimbursement for those who qualify; funding for vehicle, building and equipment insurance; accident and health insurance for on-job injuries; and covering the cost of annual equipment testing.

"The county of Augusta could advertise themselves as one of the more proactive, pro-volunteer counties in all of Virginia," Wilkes said.

A big difference between volunteers and full time staff is insurance coverage. If a work-related accident or illness falls on a career firefighter, they are covered. If the same thing happens to a volunteer, they are only covered up to $100,000.

"It's provided through a third party vendor,” Augusta County Fire Rescue Chief Dave Nichols said about the insurance coverage. “We work very closely with them to ensure that we provide the best coverage that's available at a cost effective price point."

Up until 2018, that cap was at $50,000 and while the county agreed to double the coverage, some volunteers are saying that's not enough.

"Thank you. We appreciate it. What next and when?" Wilkes said.

The Emergency Services Committee, made up of representatives from different fire departments, are currently working with the county to come up with a new plan.

"Do we want to go to a traditional workers comp policy? Do we want to stay with the accident/sickness and just raise the ceiling on that? Or do we want to go with a hybrid plan? And we're looking at several options right now," Nichols said.

The first phase of choosing a new plan is to lay out official job descriptions for volunteer companies.

"What's been recommended by our insurance carrier is to have two tiers of insurance coverage,” Nichols said. “One for the higher risk, which would be our first responders, which go out the door and one for our members that have a lower risk that do the fundraising."

Nichols said he is hoping to have a recommendation for the board of supervisors for the budget process of the fiscal year of 2021.

But as they wait, they'll continue to answer your call.