The new health care law could be endangering the jobs of those entrusted to keep us all safe. Under the Affordable care Act, volunteer firefighters may not be considered "volunteers" after all.
In the small Skagit County city of Burlington, volunteers outnumber paid firefighters by three to one. The city simply wouldn't be safe without them. The Affordable Care Act, however, could cripple the department by making it pay for health insurance for those 30 volunteers.
Since the firefighters actually get paid a meager stipend, and sometimes work more than 30 hours a week, the IRS considers them "employees." That means they may be eligible for health care coverage.
"We'll have to see if it's something that is possible," said Chief David Nielson. "If not, we need to decide how we're going to function from that point forward."
Cities across the country are trying to figure out how to handle the situation. In some cases they may have to cut desperately needed volunteers. Another option would be to hire more volunteers, but make sure no one works more than 30 hours per week. That would be difficult, said Chief Nielson, since the number of volunteers had dropped dramatically in recent years.
What's more, volunteer firefighters are already covered under a state health. Some have their own insurance from their full-time jobs.
Burlington Fire is already short-staffed, and volunteer Lt. Steve Cole worries that paying for health insurance could cost lives.
"If you have someone you need to rescue, you can't go in unless you have the right numbers. So, it's our safety and the public's safety."
Fire chiefs across the country are asking the feds for an exemption for volunteer firefighters. They hope to find out by the end of the year.