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State government offers assistance to first responders

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They may only number in the tens of thousands out of a state of more than 4.3 million people, but it isn’t hard to imagine how much more difficult life would be without our first responders.

While their work is mainly a function of local government, the state plays a role as well in helping law enforcement, firefighters and other emergency workers do their job.

It was 45 years ago this fall, for example, that Eastern Kentucky University received federal funding to set up a small law enforcement training program and to study whether law enforcement officers across the state would be open to this type of standard approach.

Several years later, the General Assembly created the Kentucky Law Enforcement Foundation Program Fund to give financial incentives to local officers meeting certain guidelines; these training incentives now amount to about $1.8 million each month.  There is a comparable program for full-time firefighters as well, and it also provides $8,250 to qualified volunteer departments.

In the late 1990s legislators set minimum guidelines for new law enforcement officers, and nearly a decade ago, the state’s Department for Criminal Justice Training opened a new law enforcement complex at Eastern Kentucky University, featuring nearly 190,000 square feet of space.  About 12,000 people, ranging from police officers and coroners to 911 operators, take classes each year.

Incidentally, the Kentucky State Police got a new academy of its own this year, thanks to the conversion of a minimum security prison in Frankfort that was no longer needed.  This saves the state quite a bit of money, because a new academy would have cost up to $35 million.

Another way the state helps our first responders is by providing them needed grants for new equipment.  The Kentucky Office of Homeland Security channeled about $6.4 million in federal funding last year for such things as radios and mobile computers, and it also distributed money generated by the sale of confiscated weapons so police departments could buy such things as firearms and body armor.  In 2010, more than 60 departments received nearly $450,000 from this program.

For firefighters, the state’s role in helping them receive the best training dates back to the creation nearly 40 years ago of what is now known as the Kentucky Fire Commission.  In 2000, it was brought into the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, and the State Fire Rescue Training Program that KCTCS now offers has, well, since caught on fire.  More than 6,000 classes are now taught annually, and the students taking them make up almost six percent of KCTCS’s total enrollment.

The Fire Commission serves almost 18,000 volunteer firefighters across the state and more than 4,400 who work in the profession full-time.  The program’s 300-plus instructors will train each department for up to 20 hours per year – at no cost locally – and its mobile training facilities are among the most extensive in the nation.  There are also courses designed to reduce farm fatalities and to improve the way serious traffic accidents are handled.

Earlier this year, my legislative colleagues and I adopted two new laws with emergency workers in mind.  Under the first, we called for greater study on how 911 services can be strengthened, and in the second, we ensured that Sept. 11 will always be observed in Kentucky as “9/11 First Responders Day.”

As that day showed all too clearly a decade ago, our first responders can pay the ultimate price when it comes to our protection.  To honor those here in Kentucky who died while on duty, we have two statewide memorials dedicated to their memory.  The one honoring firefighters, which has more than 180 names engraved on it, is just up the road from the Capitol, while the one for law enforcement, located at the criminal justice training center at Eastern Kentucky University, has more than 480.  For those interested, private donations can be given through such things as granite memorial pavers for firefighters or special license plates for the police memorial.

Because they are there every hour of every day, it may be easy to forget just how much our first responders do for all of us, but without them doing their job, the rest of us almost certainly could not do ours.  It is impossible to overstate how much difference they make in our lives.

If you have any thoughts or concerns about this issue or any other affecting the state, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I hope to hear from you soon.

Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly. He may be reached by writing to Room 351C, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or leave a message at (800) 372-7181 – TTY (800) 896-0305.