By Logan Bogert
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – A bill to allow teenagers to join volunteer fire and rescue squads may save many operations around Virginia that have seen an increase in service calls but a decrease in volunteers.
Volunteers make up more than 65 percent of Virginia’s firefighting services — but according to the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, “retention and recruitment of new members has never been more challenging.”
However, the General Assembly approved — unanimously in both the House and Senate — a bill that might rescue some of these operations.
Currently in Virginia, 16- and 17-year-olds can join a volunteer fire department only with parental or guardian consent and proper certification. SB 887, if signed by Gov. Ralph Northam, would allow these teens to join a volunteer fire department and participate in non-hazardous activities such as training exercises without consent or certification. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds still would need consent and certification to participate in a fire department’s or rescue squad’s potentially hazardous activities.
“The commonwealth recognizes the need to reach out to Virginia’s youth and engage them in non-operational roles within emergency departments,” Mohamed Abbamin, policy manager for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, said by email. “Reaching out to people when they are young has long-range effects, and encouraging youth to take part in the emergency services is extremely beneficial to local communities and departments.”
Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, introduced the bill after a meeting with the VDFP in the fall.
“It’s just like anything else: If you can get young people involved, there’s a better chance they’re going to stick with it,” Deeds said. “This bill is just about encouraging and making sure that young people can be as involved as possible.”
The legislation directs the Virginia Fire Services Board, which oversees the VDFP, to adopt a junior member policy to provide guidance to fire and rescue departments in developing and administering non-hazardous training courses and programs.
“If we can get young people that are high school age involved at least on an auxiliary basis helping out, they might be interested in eventually becoming a fireman. So that’s the idea behind the legislation,” Deeds said.