Volunteer firefighters and EMTs could buy health-care coverage through municipalities under a bill awaiting the governor's signature, according to the state senator from Milford.

The measure would be a welcome benefit to volunteers, but questions linger about its impact as an incentive because of the high cost of medical insurance, emergency service officials in Otsego and Delaware counties said Monday. Hundreds of volunteers are needed to fill ranks in departments throughout the region, they said.

Under the legislation sponsored by Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians would have expanded opportunities to secure health insurance without cost to local government. The Senate and Assembly have passed the bill, which is ready for the governor's signature.

``We don't see why he would veto it,'' Duncan Davie, legislative aide to Seward, said Monday.

By allowing volunteer fire and ambulance companies to access the health insurance plans offered to municipal employees, volunteers will be able to purchase health insurance at a group cost, according to a media release from Seward, chairman of the Senate Task Force on Volunteer Emergency Services.

"The bill provides an additional recruiting tool and helps expand health insurance to those who need it and it may be the boost that some volunteer needs to renew his card," said Seward in a prepared statement. Volunteer crews save taxpayers money, he said, and respond to calls with little reward except personal satisfaction in making their communities better.

County emergency service officials said volunteers are motivated to join departments by a desire to help others, prompted perhaps by seeing or experiencing a tragedy within their communities.

``A lot of people do have big hearts,'' said Richard J. Bell, emergency services director and fire coordinator for Delaware County.

However, the time commitment for training, answering calls and fulfilling other duties remains a hurdle to maintaining and expanding ranks in part because of family and employment demands, county officials said.

``We're in critical need of volunteers both in the fire and emergency medical communities,'' Bell said. The 30 departments in the county have about 1,200 volunteers but about 25 to 35 percent more active members are needed, he said.

Lyle ``Butch'' Jones, emergency services coordinator in Otsego County, estimated the 29 volunteer departments in the county have about 1,100 members, a force that would be more stable at 1,500. Departments are seeing some new members, he said, but not enough to replace seasoned volunteers lost through retirements or death.

Jones said many volunteers don't live in the municipalities they serve, prompting questions about administering the health-insurance benefit and whether a volunteer can apply through another municipality or the county. The cost of health insurance is a challenge to effectiveness as a recruiting tool, he said.

Existing incentives include a $200 deductible on state income taxes and a tuition program, county officials said. Bell said proposals under consideration by the Legislature to raise the deductible and exempt some motor vehicles from registration fees also would help.

The most successful incentive locally has been a retirement benefit program, Jones said, but the cost to a municipality is prohibitive and only Cooperstown has been able to provide it.

``It helps keep the department strong,'' Jones said.

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