West Virginia grant to support first responders

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Nov. 30—KEYSER, W.Va. — Mineral County first responders are expected to share in a state grant in 2024 designed to bolster compensation for emergency response workers.

In a meeting of the Mineral County Commission held Tuesday in Keyser, it was disclosed that $126,000 in funding will be issued by the West Virginia Office of Emergency Management Services in January for first responders working for the county's 11 fire and rescue departments.

"The money is to support EMS service providers and is to be used strictly for salary enhancement," said Jerry Whisner, commission president.

According to officials, low pay and high stress, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, led to a shortage of EMTs and other emergency workers, not only in West Virginia but across the U.S. In response, Gov. Jim Justice led an initiative to address the issue.

One of the first steps Justice took was establishing the Emergency Management Crisis Fund in December 2021 by allocating $10 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which infused $2.2 trillion in economic stimulus funding into the country during the height of the pandemic.

Justice used the CARES Act funding to establish a pool of resources for West Virginia to support first responders across the state. The result was creation of the EMS WV: Answer the Call program.

In August, after the program was approved by special session of the West Virginia Legislature, Justice held a ceremony at Point Pleasant Volunteer Fire Department in Mason County celebrating the funding. He said the program is a "strategic initiative that will bolster the state's EMS workforce and equip communities to better care for West Virginia citizens now and into the future."

The West Virginia Office of Emergency Management Services is expected to release $126,000 from the fund to Mineral County in January for compensation enhancement.

"All of our people are volunteers except for a few so what we propose is the EMS companies give each of their people a little bit of extra money to run a call," said Whisner.

Some discussion surrounded a one-time bonus, but Whisner thought that could be an infusion a worker could accept and leave. Officials decided the best method of compensation was to increase the workers pay per emergency call worked.

Currently, according to Whisner, emergency personnel receive $25 for each call they work. Whisner said that payment could be doubled with the funding.

"They go on an ambulance call they get $25. So what this would do is add another $25 per call so this would make it a little more financially beneficial to run calls and stay with the fire companies," said Whisner.

Luke McKenzie, county administrator, said nine of the 11 fire companies have a pay-per-call program. Two stations, Ridgeley and Wiley Ford, do not have such a program.

"Each company can come up with their own plan for how they intend to use the funds but the money has to go to enhancement of salaries," said McKenzie. "It has to go to people; it can't go for equipment or things."

McKenzie said so far the Short Gap and Fountain fire departments have expressed interest in adding the funding to their pay-per-call compensation package. He said companies that have paid staff have the option of increasing the workers hourly wages.

"The main thing is the money has to go toward employees and can't be used for anything else," said Whisner.

Greg Larry is a reporter at the Cumberland Times-News. To reach him, call 304-639-4951, email glarry@times-news.com and follow him on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.