South Carolina Firefighters' Insurance Weak

Tammy Fuller's service as a Lexington County volunteer firefighter ended with a routine weekly equipment check during a winter storm in 2003.

Slipping on a patch of ice outside the Pine Grove station, Fuller broke her arm and wrist and injured her back, neck and legs. Progressive nerve damage has left her with little control over her left foot and ankle.

Nearly two years later, Fuller still must use a walker or a wheelchair.

She lost her part-time clerical job with the Lexington County Sheriff's Department. And she now depends on the $340 per week paid by worker's compensation and two supplemental plans - less than she earned before her fall. That cut, combined with mounting medical bills, has strained the family budget.

The daughter of a volunteer chief, Fuller, 36, grew up with the fire service and met her husband at the fire hall. She is disappointed in her treatment.

"As a volunteer firefighter," Fuller said, "you're not taken care of if you get hurt."

Thousands of S.C. volunteer firefighters face the same prospect if injured on the job: they would receive little, or even no, money to support themselves if they cannot work.

Hundreds of volunteer firefighters, who mostly or totally staff 83 percent of South Carolina's fire departments, get hurt every year in the job.

The average number of claims from injured volunteer firefighters has been 287 annually over the past three years, according to the S.C. State Accident Fund.

The issue is another factor contributing to the two-decade decline in people volunteering at community fire houses, firefighter groups said. They have lobbied for years to improve benefits, something they say they will keep doing, but have had little success raising public awareness.

"The state agencies don't want to pay any more money," said Jim Bowie, president of the S.C. State Firemen's Association.

To cover volunteer firefighters, county or municipal governments must pay into a state insurance fund.

But nearly one-quarter of S.C. volunteer fire departments have no benefits at all, Bowie said, especially in poorer or rural counties that depend on an all-volunteer fire service.

Even if local government does provide the coverage, injured volunteer firefighters don't get as much in workers' compensation as many other S.C. workers, such as members of the National Guard or full-time firefighters.

Some counties and municipalities have recognized the problem and purchased supplemental policies for their firefighters. Others have signed up for a state firemen's association fund that pays benefits of $100 a week for a small annual fee, Bowie said.

In Conway, only full-time firefighters employed by the city get full medical benefits, said Conway Fire Department Capt. Jeremy Carter.

Conway's department has about 28 full-time employees and about 25 volunteer firefighters, Carter said.

The volunteers receive workers' compensation if they're injured on the job, he said.

Both volunteers and full-time employees can receive some benefits from the firemen's association, but it's not something most would depend on, Carter said.

"That's more like a relief fund. You have to be pretty down and out for that," Carter said.

For some volunteer firefighters, especially those who work in professional fields such as law or medicine, the gap in their income and their potential lost income is too much of a risk and has driven away experienced firefighters.

John Martin had volunteered since he was 16 years old. But Martin, a lawyer with Columbia's Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, decided to give up volunteering for Irmo, in part, because of the potential financial effect on his family if he got hurt.

"It becomes more and more difficult to justify the risks," said Martin, who added that increased training and time commitment also affected his decision.

How it works

Counties and municipalities must decide how much injury coverage, if any, they wish to purchase for their volunteer firefighters. Workers' compensation is typically the basic coverage, with benefits rates set in state law.

Most injured S.C. workers in the private and public sectors can claim a maximum benefit of $563 per week in workers' compensation. But the volunteer firefighter maximum benefit is capped at 37.5 percent of that amount: $211 per week.

But the only way volunteer firefighters can claim that maximum benefit is if they die. That's not true of others employed in South Carolina. If those workers earn about $800 or more per week, they can claim the maximum benefit if injured.

Injured firefighters are paid at two-thirds of the $211 maximum, so an injured volunteer firefighter who can't work at his or her regular job would receive just $140 per week, for no more than 500 weeks. (Benefits for other state workers are capped at 563 weeks.)

Volunteer firefighters have lobbied to receive the same workers' compensation rate as those in the National Guard, or 75 percent of the state's maximum benefit, said the state firemen's association's Bowie.

Bowie said he thinks the General Assembly reduced the benefits for volunteer firefighters to save money. It has been in place for at least 20 years.

Increasing workers' compensation benefits for volunteer firefighters would require the approval of the state legislature.

Pushing for change

Firefighting groups have been trying to increase benefits for at least two decades, but the costs of paying for such benefits is the largest hurdle.

Bowie did not have an estimate on how much more it would cost local government to increase benefits. Anderson Fire Chief Jack Abraham said a previous plan was quickly scuttled when the costs were counted, but he could not provide a figure.

But Sen. Greg Gregory, a Lancaster County ally who sponsored a tax credit for volunteer firefighters, said he had not realized workers' compensation was a problem until recently. Gregory said he would consider introducing legislation this January.

Other departments have taken matters into their own hands, raising money to pay for insurance.

"But it's not right to ask them to do that," Bowie said. "Tax the people instead of having to worry about collecting a $25 donation ... so they firefighters can get to calls."

Other departments, including those in larger counties such as York and Lexington, are the ones that have purchased supplemental policies. Lexington County Fire Service Coordinator Russell Rawl said the county's supplemental policy cost $9,000 per year.

Fuller, the injured Lexington firefighter, receives $200 per week in benefits from the supplemental and state firemen's association plans, in addition to $140 in workers' compensation.

Badly hurt, but lucky

Other volunteer firefighters have learned that supplemental coverage can make a difference.

Larry McConnell had just stepped from his firetruck onto Interstate 77 near Rock Hill in April 2003 when he heard screeching tires. Veering across lanes of traffic, a white car clipped the back of the truck, spun and pinned McConnell's legs between its bumper and the firetruck.

"It hurt like crazy for a second, and then it quit," said McConnell, an assistant chief with the Lesslie Volunteer Fire Department in York County who works in human resources at Georgia-Pacific.

McConnell passed out quickly. He awoke to face recovery and rehabilitation from a broken leg, broken hip and cracked pelvis.

McConnell's missed work was covered by Georgia-Pacific. If it hadn't been, York County's supplemental policy would have paid him $400 a week for life in addition to workers' compensation.

McConnell, who has since returned to restricted duties at the firehouse, said he had never really considered the effect of an injury and felt fortunate to learn he was covered by his department.

After his experience, McConnell said, he is willing to lobby for a law change.

"Most of our volunteers work paycheck to paycheck," he said.

For Tammy Fuller and her family, this January marks 100 weeks on disability benefits. She will get them for 500 weeks. Her doctors have told her she is permanently disabled.