State needs more emergency responders, takes aim at training

By: - Monday February 20, 2023 7:00 am

State needs more emergency responders, takes aim at training

By: - 7:00 am

Volunteer firefighters are a crucial component of Indiana’s emergency services but their numbers are declining as training grows more difficult. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Volunteer firefighters are a crucial component of Indiana’s emergency services but their numbers are declining as training grows more difficult. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Indiana’s emergency responders, especially volunteer firefighters, might be getting more funding for training and gear in the next state budget.

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s proposed budget earmarks more than $13 million to expand training opportunities for these volunteers, most of whom work in rural counties. Currently, large swaths of the state are more than 45 minutes away from one of the 14 existing state-funded facilities. 

A map of Indiana’s existing training locations compared to a $13M expansion. (From the Department of Homeland Security)

“We’ve made a lot of progress in terms of our first responders,” Holcomb said last week. “But what we really want – as with our infrastructure program, as we’ve done with our public health commission – we really wanted this to be data driven.”

If approved by lawmakers, the $13 million will fund an additional 16 facilities, meaning nearly every corner of the state will be less than 30 miles from a training facility. 

“We’ve on the road now,” Joel Thacker, the executive director of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said about how soon new regional sites could be built. Thacker, the previous State Fire Marshal, oversees the state’s emergency response system as the leader of DHS.

Building such facilities required more forethought, Thacker noted, because they needed to be isolated from neighborhoods but still have connections to a continuous water supply. 

“My hope is that (planning is) all wrapped up when the money is approved so we can hit the ground running and start seeing these under construction,” Thacker said. 

The importance of training close to home

Rep. Randy Frye, a retired Indianapolis firefighter, said he joined the service because it was high adrenaline and high risk, just like the sports he played in high school. 

But committing to the 10-week course as a volunteer firefighter balancing a job and family can be difficult – especially because training is “far more intense and involved” than it was 20 years ago, Frye said. 

“Some of it is we’ve learned a lot. We have a very high cancer rate amongst firefighters and we learned that some of that was because we weren’t taking care of ourselves. We weren’t doing the proper training or wearing the proper protection,” Frye, R-Greensburg, said.

Having facilities closer to potential volunteers makes it easier to recruit someone to the demanding profession and provides high-quality training that could save their lives.

Rep. Randy Frye, R-Greensburg, considers a bill during a utilities committee hearing. (Monroe Bush for the Indiana Capital Chronicle)

“Public safety in general – whether it’s law enforcement, EMS (Emergency Medical Services), the fire service – all of our recruiting numbers are down,” Thacker said. “I think our lives are so busy, it’s hard for us to really make that additional sacrifice or take on additional responsibilities outside of the home.”

At the beginning of his career in 1984, Frye said that he didn’t use a self-contained breathing apparatus frequently, something “we should have been wearing all along.”

Additionally, homes today are often treated with more fire protectants and catch fire less often than older homes. But the use of composite materials in modern homes means that, if the home does catch fire, it burns much faster and the fumes are more dangerous. 

Frye said today, a floor joist or truss might burn in 10 minutes, compared to the hour firefighters used to have. This weakens the floor and makes it more dangerous for emergency responders to enter a home. 

Frye retired from the service in 2010, the same year he joined the General Assembly. He is spearheading a handful of legislative efforts to recruit firefighters, especially younger Hoosiers to offset the aging volunteer service whose members are, on average, in their 50s.

“We have to find other ways to attract new volunteer firefighters,” Frye said. “If we had to pay for it, it would cost billions of dollars. We can’t afford to lose it.”

Joel Thacker, Director of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security (Photo from DHS)

Volunteer fire units traditionally have a lower call volume than their career counterparts, though EMS calls over the last few years have grown even as the number of people responding shrinks.

Thacker estimated that nearly three-quarters of the state’s emergency responders, specifically firefighters and paramedics, were volunteers – and it’s not uncommon for someone in the firefighting industry to cross train as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). 

But maintaining individual stations, training emergency responders and equipping them is prohibitively expensive. 

“It takes about $12,000 to outfit one firefighter and these organizations don’t have the money,” Thacker said. “They have to raise money through fish fries and other event just to survive and put gas in their vehicles.”

Additionally, turnout gear – the protective clothing used by firefighters – is supposed to be completely replaced every five years and a self-contained breathing apparatus needs to be replaced every 10 years.

Legislation aims to improve emergency services

Several proposals in the Statehouse aim to provide more funding to these services. 

Holcomb’s budget proposed $24.2 million for public safety, which includes the $13.1 million for building and expanding training facilities.

Another $1.1 million will go to mobile training, or materials and trailers used by DHS for other programming, while the remaining $10 million will replace volunteer turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatus – with a priority to replace the oldest equipment from the most impoverished stations.

Outside of the budget, a handful of other bills aim to ease Indiana’s shortage of emergency responders – specifically the sweeping proposal to shore up Indiana’s public health system.

An analysis of the state’s training and workforce development for EMTs was one of the Governor Public Health Commission’s recommendations, with a focus on which communities fall short on trauma care. 

Frye initially passed legislation creating the state’s ‘hub-and-spoke’ model for firefighter training, centered around a facility in Plainfield, but the first bill didn’t include any funding. 

Training at a facility includes extensive education on combating live fire in a specialized structure made from shipping containers. 

Lessons include, but are not limited to: 

  • Stretching a firehose
  • Ventilating a structure
  • Searching for victims
  • Forcing a door
  • Throwing a ground ladder

Emergency responders with medical training are even more important in rural areas far from hospitals because the majority of calls to EMS are time sensitive or require treating someone with significant trauma. Most firefighters are dual certified as EMTs and roughly 70% of calls to their stations are for emergency services, not fires.

Under the public health bill, which passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, emergency services will get nearly $14.7 million. Ambulances, which can cost over $300,000, were added into the bill as one of the “core health services” which public health grant funding can cover.

“That’s great because we have a shortage of ambulances, we have a shortage of people that operate ambulances,” Thacker said. “When I was fire chief, we could put a request in to build an ambulance and get it in 180 days. Now it’s two years and the cost has increased.”

Other bills include a proposal to better mesh emergency dispatch systems across county lines and another easing the splitting of local income taxes between government entities to fund fire districts.

“In the last couple of years, I feel like we have really had a lot of attention and a lot of focus from local and state leaders to try to make a difference, to try to make things better,” Thacker said. 

But Thacker said that while the current injection of funding would stabilize and build out the training infrastructure, but more is still needed to secure a sustainable source of revenue. 

Currently, Indiana funds its public safety training fund, its fire training infrastructure fund and disaster relief fund through a 5% public safety fee on fireworks. A bill from Frye would combine those funds with Indiana’s Homeland Security Fund, paid for through First Responder license plate purchases, into one overall fund that includes scholarships.

Volunteer firefighters are now eligible for scholarships to Ivy Tech to cover tuition and books as part of an annual $125,000 appropriation through the budget.

Last week Holcomb said funding for the state’s emergency responders would be something to address, especially in his last budget as governor.

“We’re not at halftime yet, but we will meet with the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tem,” he said. “We’re talking about our shared priorities and this is on all of our radar.”

With better training and more funding for equipment, hopefully younger generations will volunteer as emergency responders in their communities.

“The goal of this is to help make it better. Is it enough? No. We’ve got to continue to do better; we’ve got to sustain this moving forward,” Thacker said. “But it’s certainly a great start.”

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Whitney Downard
Whitney Downard

A native of upstate New York, Whitney previously covered statehouse politics for CNHI’s nine Indiana papers, focusing on long-term healthcare facilities and local government. Prior to her foray into Indiana politics, she worked as a general assignment reporter for The Meridian Star in Meridian, Mississippi. Whitney is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University (#GoBonnies!), a community theater enthusiast and cat mom.

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