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.

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.

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