Another viewpoint: Indiana lawmakers — don’t forget about firefighters

(Jeffersonville) News and Tribune

The 2023 Indiana General Assembly is somewhere nearing the 175th lap, a juncture that on the famous 2.5-mile oval to the west would mean crews are checking and double-checking for that final stretch to the green flag.

In the assembly’s case, the green flag is April 29. And like the “greatest spectacle in racing,” this year’s ride with the lawmakers has been a spectacle.

The big question now is who will win and who will lose? And we don’t mean among the lawmakers. The politically and partisan bills have taken much of the spotlight so far, but the nitty-gritty dollarwise is still ahead for Indiana residents.

There is much need right now. Schools, health care, infrastructure, care for an aging population. And our first responders, be they law enforcement or firefighters.

In his budget, Gov. Eric Holcomb included money to substantially raise starting pay for Indiana State Police officers after the agency’s last recruiting class was the smallest in decades. Law enforcement at all levels and throughout the state is having a hard time keeping positions filled.

But there is an equally tough time facing fire departments. The July 2022 U.S. Census numbers put the state’s population at 6,833,037.

The National Fire Department Registry reported as of January 2023, there were 27,182 registered fire departments, which constitute about 92% of the departments estimated to be in the U.S.

Indiana reported 763 departments for its more than 6 million residents.

There are four categories of fire departments in the U.S.:

A. Career departments constitute 9.3%.

B. Mostly career departments constitute 4.9%.

C. Mostly volunteer departments constitute 15.6%.

D. Volunteer departments constitute 70.2%.

Indiana is 73% volunteer, 14.3% mostly volunteer, 3.3% mostly career and 9.4% career. Outside of major cities with paid career firefighters, our firefighters are mostly volunteer.

Many of those firefighters have been volunteers for much of their lives, putting money from their own pockets into training, firefighting gear and associated costs while becoming experts at hosting bingo games, fish fries and other events to provide money to their firehouses.

There was a time in many areas when it was family tradition in each generation to become a firefighter. Not so now in an era when help wanted signs line the roadways and companies seek employees to fill open jobs.

But Gov. Holcomb tucked something else into his proposed budget. It’s called Next Level Firefighting Training and includes $24.2 million for expanding the current regional approach to training for basic firefighting skills, especially for volunteer fire departments.

The initial proposed investment would fund new equipment and 16 new skills training and testing sites, more than doubling the preexisting number of locations from 14 to 30. There are additional proposed investments including critical personal protective equipment and mobile training equipment packages.

As this session proceeds, lawmakers should be sure this money is not cut. If anything, there should be more.

But this at least is a start toward building greater fire protection for Hoosier homes and business owners.