Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash.
Hoping to attract more rural residents to join their local volunteer fire departments, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and a bipartisan group of Capitol Hill colleagues on Thursday introduced legislation to add volunteer firefighters and first responders to the list of people eligible for federal housing assistance.
“These communities cannot afford to move to fire departments that are staffed around the clock, and they do rely on volunteers,” Baldwin said in a telephone interview. But as younger adults especially are less likely to staff volunteer departments today, “we need to make sure we’re providing incentives and supporting them.”
Baldwin told the Wisconsin Examiner that the need for affordable housing to enable younger adults to serve as volunteer first-responders was impressed upon her early in her first term, when she toured the site of a massive wildfire in Douglas County after it had been extinguished and learned not only of the preponderance of volunteers but that many were in their 60s. The lack of housing was one of several factors that rural, volunteer departments have cited in conversations over the years about their difficulty in recruiting new personnel, she said in a telephone interview.
“We need to make sure that those who volunteer their time to serve have affordable housing in their community,” Baldwin said. Nationally, 65% of firefighters are volunteers, according to the National Fire Protection Association
The legislation would allow volunteer emergency responders to obtain housing loans under the Single Family Housing Guaranteed Loan Program offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development. While the program has an income cap, volunteer responders would be able to exceed the cap by up to $18,000 and still take part.
Volunteer responders would also join law enforcement officers, teachers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Good Neighbor Next Door program, which offers those professions a discount of 50% on the list price of a home in a revitalization area.
Baldwin said she hoped the bill would pass quickly. “It’s very straightforward because it takes two existing programs that are intended to help people afford housing and enables volunteer first responders to be eligible for those programs,” she said.
In addition to Baldwin, the bill, called the Volunteer First Responder Housing Act, is sponsored by Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), and Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
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