When county and state officials respond to the pleas of rural communities – or, even better, act before we resort to begging — that’s heartening.

When representatives in Washington, D.C. hear us, that’s doubly gratifying.

Last month, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) co-sponsored the bipartisan Volunteer First Responder Housing Act, that would expand federal housing aid to volunteer firefighters and first responders who serve in rural areas.

A release from Baldwin’s office said the act would expand eligibility for an existing U.S. Department of Agriculture program that offers loan guarantees to low and moderate-income rural families. It would raise the program’s maximum allowable income ceiling by $18,000 per year for volunteer firefighters and EMTs.

The legislation would also expand, to include those volunteers, an existing U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program that offers a 50 percent discount on listed home prices in areas targeted for revitalization. The program has been open to police and teachers and full-time firefighters.

Other co-sponsors of the act include Mike Rounds (R-SD), Jon Tester (D-MT), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Pat Roberts (R-KS).

The co-sponsors stressed that rural volunteer firefighter and emergency responder recruitment and retention is a national issue.

“Hundreds of rural communities across West Virginia rely on volunteer firefighters and EMS professionals,” Senator Capito said. “The goal is to encourage these local heroes to continue their brave work in their communities.”

According to the National Fire Protection Association, 65 percent of firefighters nationwide were volunteers in 2017.

The Wisconsin Department of Administration, in a June 2019 fiscal report, said there are about 6,300 volunteer emergency responders and practitioners in the state, roughly 17,000 volunteer firefighters and another 4,500 firefighters who contribute a mix of volunteer and paid time.

“Fire departments in Wisconsin and throughout the nation rely heavily on volunteer firefighters and EMS first responders. We need to make sure that those who volunteer their time to serve have affordable housing in their community,” Sen. Baldwin said in the release. “Recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters is critical for thousands of communities, yet local volunteer fire departments, especially those serving small and rural communities, find it difficult to meet staffing needs and attract younger volunteers.”

The introduction of the federal legislation follows recent efforts in Wisconsin to create incentives for rural volunteer firefighters and emergency responders.

Introduced in June 2019, Wisconsin Senate Bill 287 and Assembly Bill 302 would make available three different refundable tax credits for volunteer firefighters, emergency medical responders and practitioners, and ambulance drivers.

The first would offer a $300 annual tax credit for volunteers who have served for 1-5 years, and $600 for volunteers who have served for more than five years. The second would offer a refundable tax credit of $20 per hour, for up to 25 hours, during which a responder was engaged in education or training.

Applicants for both tax credits would have to be in good standing with their department and would have to have given 40 hours with their department or participated in at least 50 percent of the calls their department responded to that year.

The third option would give a tax credit for unreimbursed mileage and expenses including gear.

Neither of the Wisconsin bills have been passed into law.

That’s disappointing, but at least a conversation has been attempted.

We hope that the federal Volunteer First Responder Housing Act finds Congressional support.

Volunteers save local taxpayer dollars by giving of their time at a fraction of the cost of hiring full-time firefighters and emergency responders.

The Cambridge area is just one Wisconsin community that has recently seen the direct fiscal effect of transitioning to full-time EMTs, after the ranks of volunteers dwindled.

Anything that can be done to make life easier for volunteer emergency responders, to allow them to begin and to keep serving, we support. With heartfelt thanks.

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