Rewarding Firefighters: A Community Investment

Fire Chief Randy Polzin
Isanti Fire District

In 2012, Minnesota’s 20,000 firefighters answered more than 237,000 calls and logged hundreds of thousands of hours of service. Here in Isanti County, Isanti Fire District responds to several hundred emergency calls each year across a 195 mile service area.

As volunteers, these public servants receive virtually no compensation other than modest pensions after 20 years of service – a bargain when you consider the amount of work and level of dedication that goes into being a firefighter.

Partial funding for Minnesota firefighter pensions has come from insurance premium surcharges since the 1870s, a logical funding source since services from firefighters protect homeowners. Now, the State Legislature is considering a bill that would add a $5 insurance premium surcharge to help restore funding back to 2006 levels.

Some may ask: “is it worth it?” The answer is that volunteer firefighters are among the best bargains in public safety, performing most of rural and suburban communities’ fire and rescue work while receiving little or no compensation. A $5 surcharge is a very small price to pay for such a critical community service, and failing to pass this bill could have catastrophic consequences for our local fire departments, many of which are already struggling to stay equipped.

State aid to fire departments (funded by insurance premiums) has declined more than 30 percent during the period of 2006 through 2012. This caused volunteer fire relief plans to go into an underfunded status, decrease their modest benefits or hold benefit levels for years. In some cases, this underfunding required increased municipal contributions, which resulted in property tax increases.

It’s also important to note that firefighter pensions are not funded through Minnesota’s general fund, as they are in many other states. In fact, Minnesota firefighters pay a significant portion of their pension costs out of pocket, and many Minnesota fire departments hold annual fundraising events to help bolster their pension funds.

The volunteer fire pension is an essential recruitment and retention tool, and the loss of state aid has resulted in negative impacts. For example, there were 18,734 active volunteers in 1996 compared to 16,839 in 2011 – a 10 percent drop in the number of firefighters serving Minnesota communities. Couple that with the fact that, according to the State Auditor Compilation Report in 2010, 68.3 percent of all volunteers were over the age of 35, with 18 percent of that being over the age of 50, and the situation becomes even more dire.

Along with the rest of the nation, Minnesota is facing a critical shortage of volunteer firefighters, and the cost of training and equipping new firefighters – only to have many of them leave the department after a few years – continues to be a challenge for underfunded volunteer departments.

Don’t let the Legislature put public safety at risk – tell your state senator and representative to support SF935 and HF857.

Randy Polzin is Fire Chief for the Isanti Fire District and the President of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association.