CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A national firefighters organization is the latest group to come out against a proposal to place West Virginia’s Emergency Management agency under the National Guard through state law.
That has already happened in practice through a memorandum from Gov. Jim Justice, but his administration has talked for months about making the move official through state code.
A bill to do so didn’t make it through the Legislature during the regular session, but there’s been a lot of talk about trying again with a bill during a special session in a few weeks.
Several groups representing people who respond to emergencies at the local level have expressed concerns about the proposal.
The latest is the National Volunteer Fire Council, which sent a letter this past week to the governor, Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw.
The national council said it was representing the interests of the West Virginia State Firemen’s Association.
“As I read the bill, it gives really broad authority to the National Guard. Now how is that going to be exercised in practice? I don’t know,” said Dave Finger, chief of legislative and regulatory affairs for the National Volunteer Fire Council.
“It’s just a very odd piece of legislation from my perspective.”
West Virginia’s 911 Council voted last week in opposition to the bill if it remains as-is. A related group, the West Virginia Emergency Management Council, voted unanimously on Friday against the proposed move.
Also, the Wood County Commission, after hearing from the county’s 911 director, came out against the bill. Commissioners expressed support for Jeff Sandy, a former Wood County sheriff who leads the state agency that has been over Emergency Management.
Asked for comment this week, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia National Guard said that organization will continue to perform its duties however it is called to do so.
“The Governor has tasked the West Virginia National Guard to oversee both the flood recovery and emergency management and we remain focused on those matters,” stated Holli Nelson, state public affairs officer.
“We will leave it up to the policymakers to determine the appropriate course of action for this particular issue.”
Several states have structures where the adjutant general oversees emergency services. One of those, Nebraska, has a detailed overview of how that works.
During a broad-ranging background session with West Virginia reporters this past month, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed that’s the structure in many states, and the preference is left at the local level.
West Virginia’s proposal is ambitious, though, in that it would establish a State Resiliency Officer just below the governor in authority and above the rest of the cabinet in instances of emergency.
West Virginia’s emergency management agency has been integrated with the National Guard since last fall, and emergency responders at the local level have expressed concern with several aspects of reflecting that in state law.
Hiring under military authority has helped expedite staffing and higher pay, but local emergency managers have wondered if that has led to shortcuts in posting positions and going through a competitive hiring process.
The local emergency management groups also have expressed concern about who would control grant money as it flows through the state.
“The concern that we are hearing from our WV members is not that the National Guard should not be adjutant general over emergency management,” Finger said.
“It is that the bill in question appears to give the State via the National Guard sweeping authority to control local emergency services agencies.”