Supporting our hometown heroes

Supporting our hometown heroes
© Emily Flax/Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office via AP

As the congressman for the 10th District of North Carolina, I am proud to support those who are on the front lines of protecting our loved ones: volunteer firefighters. Some of my favorite visits in the 10th District are to local volunteer fire departments. At every visit, you meet dedicated men and women who proudly serve their communities. You see the best of America in these everyday heroes. I have now visited more than 100 fire departments and whether it was the Buladean VFD in the mountain hollows near the Tennessee border early in my first term in Congress, or the Shepherds VFD in the busy suburbs north of Charlotte earlier this year, I feel blessed each time I am in the presence of the fire service.

From departments that are responsible for protecting fast-growing suburbs to small, rural departments protecting farmland and our state and national forests, the brave men and women serving in our volunteer fire and EMS departments work tirelessly to keep our communities safe. This is an incredibly challenging task and volunteer fire departments deserve not only our thanks, but our support.

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That is why — throughout my time in Congress — I’ve hosted workshops for 10th District EMS and fire departments that help them navigate the process of obtaining federal grants. These grants — available via the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Assistance to Firefighter Grant program — provide much needed funding for department’s equipment and staffing needs.

While this program is crucial to volunteer fire departments nationwide, we can do more for these everyday heroes. This starts with ensuring access to the same resources that are available to their state-employed counterparts.

To help address this gap, I introduced H.R. 3874, a bill that allows full-time nonprofit firefighters, EMS workers and paramedics to join a state or local retirement system.

For years, the IRS has prevented full-time volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel in my state from joining the North Carolina state retirement system despite providing the same emergency and community services as those employed by the state. In North Carolina, there are 474 volunteer fire departments with one or more career firefighters. This means there are more than 5,000 full-time firefighters working at volunteer fire departments in my state alone who are impacted. The IRS claims the way the North Carolina pension fund is set up, allowing nonprofit firefighters and EMS workers to join would jeopardize its status as a “governmental plan.”

I strongly believe that those who do so much to help protect our families and neighbors are entitled to receive the same benefits as their state-employed counterparts. My bill creates a special rule to clarify that 501c (nonprofit) public safety agency volunteer fire department and EMS workers can join the governmental plan of the locality or state they are contracted to work in.

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This bill is a simple fix that goes a long way to supporting our full-time volunteer firefighters and emergency medical workers as they protect and serve communities here in North Carolina and across the country. By opening these already existing plans to full-time employees of volunteer fire departments, these departments will be better equipped to retain their workforce. This will ensure that the small and rural communities served by those departments remain as well protected as their neighbors in bigger cities.

Volunteer firefighters, EMS workers and paramedics save lives and property across the country every day. H.R. 3874 is a commonsense change that will level the playing field for these dedicated public servants.

McHenry represents the 10th District of North Carolina.