How Every South Carolina Volunteer Firefighter Or Rescue Squad Worker Is At Risk Of Getting Screwed

firefighter at the scene of an accident

By: Attorney Ken Harrell

I grew up in the small southeastern Virginia town of Waverly.  When I was a kid, it was a great town to grow up in.  There were only about 2,000 residents and we all knew each other well.  Main Street flourished with locally-owned businesses from Pope’s Grocery Store to Welch’s Hardware.  The little league baseball and church softball games were big events, with the stands packed to over-flowing for every game.  Now it wasn’t utopia.  The town still had a ways to go in terms of race relations.  All churches were and still are racially segregated.  The town’s two swimming pools remained strictly segregated into the 1980’s and Sussex County, Virginia was one of the last counties in the country to integrate its schools.  (As an aside, one of the best things my wonderful parents ever did for me was to send me to public schools instead of to the white-flight academy which was opened as a reaction to the push for integration.  I can attribute much of my success as a trial lawyer to the life skills I learned attending school for 12 years as one of the few white students.)

One thing my small town did excel at was a sense of volunteerism.  Good people were expected to give back to their community.  My dad and my mom served in a number of volunteer roles (elected and otherwise) for as long as I can remember.  For my dad, this included service on my hometown’s volunteer rescue squad.  He was an active squad member on calls for well over 10 years and he served as the squad’s treasurer for over three decades.  My sister’s two sons have continued this legacy of service, as both of them have served as volunteer firefighters for the neighboring town of Wakefield for years.  For small towns like Waverly and Wakefield, Virginia, every citizen would be in a precarious situation if it weren’t for neighbors who selflessly give up their time to serve on volunteer fire and rescue squads.  That remains true for many rural South Carolina towns and counties today.

With that in mind, I hope that no one who reads this feels that I am trying to dissuade anyone from volunteering for these noble causes.  However, people who provide these services need to understand the precarious financial situation they are likely to be in if they are injured while doing the same.  These are people who are responding to fires, to explosions, to severe auto accidents – what could possibly go wrong?  The obvious answer is plenty.  When a volunteer firefighter or rescue squad worker is injured, they are often seriously hurt and can be left permanently disabled.

It is true that these volunteers are covered by state workers’ compensation insurance coverage.  In South Carolina, that coverage is typically provided by the South Carolina Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund or the South Carolina Counties Workers’ Compensation Trust.  Since there is no cap on the amount of medical costs covered for a South Carolina workers’ compensation claim, the problem is not the injured volunteer’s medical bills.  Yes, the insurance carrier will get to choose the injured worker’s treating doctor but all of the authorized medical costs should be paid.

The problem for the injured volunteer is the paltry disability benefit he or she will receive if they are out of work due to their injury (and the resultant low settlement which will be paid for permanent impairment or disability).  Here’s why that is a problem.  When most South Carolina workers are injured, the law requires that you calculate their average weekly wage (gross wages) during the preceding year, and the worker is then paid 2/3rds of this amount while they are disabled.  Therefore, if someone had an average weekly wage of $900, their weekly compensation rate would be $600.

This is not how the average weekly wage is calculated for volunteer firefighters and rescue squad workers.  Instead, section 42-7-65 of the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act mandates that the average weekly wage for these workers is “thirty-seven and one-half percent of the average weekly wage in the State for the preceding fiscal year.”  Here’s how that works.  In 2018, the average weekly wage for all South Carolinians (per the calculations of the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce) was $845.74.  37.5% of that figure is $317.15.  Two-thirds of that amount is $211.43.  That’s how much a severely injured volunteer firefighter would be expected to support his family on if he was disabled due to a work injury.  Considering what these people are putting on the lines for their communities, this is a travesty.

There is a simple and fair solution to this situation.  The same statutory provision which establishes the average weekly wage for volunteer fire and rescue squad workers also sets the average weekly wage for State and National Guard members.  For these men and women, the average weekly wage is deemed to be 75% of the state’s average weekly wage during the preceding fiscal year, “or the average weekly wage the service member would be entitled to, if any, if injured while performing his civilian employment, if the average weekly wage in his civilian employment is greater.”  (emphasis added)  So how would this work?  My dad worked for decades as the postmaster of my small town.  Let’s say a postmaster earning $50,000.00 a year was severely hurt on a volunteer rescue squad call.  Instead of getting the ridiculously low payment of $211.43 a week, the volunteer’s average weekly wage would calculate out to $961.54 – $50,000.00 divided by 52 weeks), so the weekly compensation rate would be $641.03.  That’s a darn sight better than $211.43.  Clearly, this situation could be legislatively fixed by adding the same language I’ve highlighted above to the provisions covering volunteer firefighters and rescue squad workers.  Unfortunately, political pressure exerted by the county and municipality insurance funds have prevented that from happening to date.

While it’s true that increasing these benefits would result in a higher premium for the affected counties and towns, that cost would PALE in comparison to what it would cost to run and operate a professional fire department or emergency medical service.  If you google “South Carolina volunteer firefighter shortage”, you’ll see a host of articles about the serious shortage of volunteer firefighters in South Carolina, and nationally.  All of us recognize the importance of having quality firefighters and rescue squad personnel.  For the sake of these men and women, and their families, all of us should also support making sure that they are not faced with financial ruin if they’re hurt while doing this work.