State EMS, fire department chiefs address vacancies and mental health crisis

Gray haired man in fire chief uniform at a podium.

State fire and emergency medical services chiefs face challenges recruiting and retaining jobs, keeping stations open and maintaining sanity in the wake of overwhelming tragedy . They seek help from the West Virginia Legislature.

Emotion was at its height on Tuesday afternoon, when the The Joint Committee on Volunteer Fire Services and Emergency Medical Services has heard stories of lingering mental anguish among first responders following so many trauma response calls.

Jody Ratliff, director of state emergency medical services, said a key to keeping people on teams is addressing mental health issues. He said 988 Crisis Lifeline counselors now work with traumatized paramedics and send staff to accompany serious ambulance calls.

Ratliff is also establishing regional critical debriefing teams across the state, responding when trauma and bereavement counseling is most needed.

“When there’s a major incident, we can deploy that team to those areas, and they can actually do a critical debrief for that,” Ratliff said. “All these services, we were able to withdraw them for free. So it doesn’t cost taxpayers a penny.

Ratliff plans to eventually include firefighters in his trauma relief plans.

Randy James, president of the West Virginia State Fire Chiefs Association, links serious volunteer firefighter (VFD) funding issues to mental health. James said the new legislation gives VFDs the option of buying a separate insurance policy to cover their members’ mental health issues, but he added that it doesn’t work because it’s not affordable.

“As far as I know I haven’t heard of a single fire department buying extra insurance to cover PTSD for their members, they can’t afford it,” James said.

Members of the joint committee began the meeting by working to revitalize failed Bill 3153, which would have dramatically increased funding for volunteer fire departments and emergency medical service providers.

James told lawmakers that if an EMS team ran out of funds, they shut down. He said that in 2022, 15 teams have closed. However, he said, when VFDs run out of funds, they lose volunteers.

“The departments will continue to do what they are doing,” James said. “They’re cutting services, maybe they’re not buying as much equipment or they’re buying used equipment or even cutting training. But one big thing that happens to a volunteer fire department when you don’t have proper funding is that they lose members.

James said it was aggravating to come out of legislative sessions with virtually no funding increases since 2005 while hearing the news about excess funds and record tax collections. He asked the committee what else first responders could do to fill an estimated 1,900 EMS vacancies with a workforce shortfall of almost a third.

Of the. Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, echoed his colleague’s sentiments when he said “don’t give up”.

“We know every state department is frustrated,” Statler said. “When we get home, we hear about our local volunteer fire companies and our EMS services. We continue to work on this problem that we have in front of us.

Committee members said they would continue to make the failed funding bill better suited for passage. They plan to draft a letter to Gov. Jim Justice to have the bill included in any upcoming special session.

Fire and EMS Committee Chairman Sen. Vince Deeds, R-Greenbrier, ended the interim meeting with a promise.

“As you can see, everyone on this committee is really involved and engaged on all of these issues,” Deeds said. “I give you my word, we’ll do everything we can to make it right.”

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