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By Beau Evans
Capitol Beat News Service
The Cairo Messenger
The Georgia Senate passed legislation Tuesday aimed at loosening training requirements for volunteer fire departments in the state, and local officials say they are pleased with this development.
Senate Bill 342 would create a council tasked with establishing training and certification rules for volunteer fire departments in Georgia that are separate from those required for full-time professional fire departments.
“This will head off some things that were leaning towards making it harder to get volunteers and to keep volunteers,” says Richard Phillips, chief of the Grady County Volunteer Fire Department and director of the Grady County Emergency Management Agency.
The bill passed the Senate unanimously and heads to the Georgia House for consideration.
Its sponsor, Sen. Burt Jones, said the measure’s intent is to loosen training requirements for volunteer firefighters. Currently, volunteers receive the same kind of stringent training that professional firefighters are required to take.
“This bill, if passed and signed into law, would be extremely beneficial for all-volunteer counties such as ours. Currently, our volunteers must have the same training and certification as paid firemen for the City of Atlanta. This would established a new set of standards for volunteer firefighters and should help us attract more volunteers as our older volunteers retire,” Grady County Commission Chairman Keith Moye said. Moye also serves as the chief of the Cairo station of the Grady County Volunteer Fire Department.
Sen. Jones, R-Jackson, said tougher training may scare off qualified people interested in volunteering particularly in rural areas where volunteer firehouses are often critical to a community’s public safety readiness.
“This will alleviate those requirements and hopefully improve our volunteer network again,” Jones said.
Grady County currently has 125 volunteer firefighters, about 25 or so fewer than several years ago, Phillips says.
The bill would hand oversight functions to a new seven-member Georgia Volunteer Fire Service Council tasked with establishing training programs for volunteer firefighters and certifying anyone who has received training as a federal firefighter.
It would also prohibit persons with felony convictions from joining a volunteer firehouse, unless more than five years have passed since the conviction and the person has both completed a training program and been recommended by the trainers.
Last week, Senate Public Safety Committee Chairman John Albers, R-Roswell, said changing the rules for volunteer firefighters would greatly help rural parts of the state that are stretched thin in terms of fire-safety resources.
“We all need to remember that the grand majority of the land mass of this state is covered by rural volunteer firefighters,” Albers said. “We want to make sure we set them up for success and we’re doing the right things in order to maintain safety in each one of those communities.”