(06/09/2010)
By Bob Weaver

Calhoun's three volunteer fire departments are facing another challenge, increased worker's compensation premiums charged by BrickStreet Mutual Insurance Company.

Most West Virginia volunteer fire departments are protesting the increase.

Volunteer fire units, already struggling in West Virginia to make ends meet and keep enough volunteers to handle emergencies, are facing the imminent increase.

BrickStreet says it is losing money on the coverage.

Worse yet, within a year, the state's first private insurer of workers' compensation intends to abandon volunteer fire departments altogether.

The rates go up July 1.

"It's based on the number of hours worked by the volunteer departments," said BrickStreet's chief executive officer, Greg Burton.

"It's [rate increase] multiplied by the average pay for a paid fireman. That's where the big increase is," he said, meaning the larger the department and the more hours they put in, the larger the increase.

So far, the WV legislature has not come up with a plan to reinforce volunteerism in the state's fire units, which provide most of the fire and emergency services in the Mountain State.

Volunteer fire departments are struggling to stay in operation, in part because of increased training and state requirements for certification.

BrickStreet came on line after the Legislature moved to privatize workers' compensation.

BrickStreet says it has been collecting some $500,000 annually in premiums while shelling out between $3 million and $3.5 million in claims and expenses related to VFD activities.

BrickStreet will double its collections in premiums to about $1 million, cutting their losses by $500,000.

BrickStreet says there are lots of accidents going to emergencies.

State Insurance Commissioner Jane Cline says no private insurers would write coverage for VFDs using the current method.

Cline said that volunteer firefighters injured on duty are compensated based on the wages of their "day" jobs. She said those figures are "all over the board," but frequently are higher than salaries for professional firefighters.

State officials are saying that county commissions should come up with the money, but WV counties are expecting a major deficit during 2010-11, which will likely mean reductions in current services.


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