Protecting volunteer protectors
Elburn officials struggle with insurance and liability issues for police volunteers
by Ryan Wells
Elburnâ€”As part of the effort to appoint voluntary auxiliary officers in the village, Elburn officials faced the question of insurance and liability during Mondayâ€™s Village Board meeting.
The volunteer officer program, known as the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), is supported by federal grant money and has been providing training since this spring. The program trains volunteers to provide traffic control assistance during community events, as well as an increased village emergency and disaster response.
Village administrator Erin Willrett said the program has received positive feedback, with approximately 12 individuals taking part in the training so far, and one or two working at an event at a time.
The questions of insurance and liability create an uncertainty that could threaten the program.
â€œThe issue is, do we want to turn away volunteers because weâ€™re not sure how they are covered?â€ Willrett said.
The issue of liability is fairly straightforward, Village President Dave Anderson said. Issues of liability govern the volunteersâ€™ actions while representing the village, and in those cases, the village would be liable. This circumstance would be covered under the villageâ€™s liability insurance.
The issue that remains unresolved is one of workerâ€™s compensation insurance and coverage.
â€œIf there was a surgeon who volunteered, and God forbid something happened and he or she could no longer perform surgery, whoâ€™s liable (for the lost wages)?â€ Anderson asked.
Willrett said she contacted the Illinois Municipal League Risk Management Association (IMLRMA) for clarification on this issue and the response did not provide a definitive answer.
The e-mailed response from Jason Neiman, IMLRMA claims and litigation manager, stated that a municipalityâ€™s workmanâ€™s compensation insurance generally is not intended to cover volunteers. However, the final decision on each case is left up to a workerâ€™s compensation commission or an arbitrator.
â€œThe general leaning of the commission seems to be in favor of compensation,â€ Neiman wrote in his e-mail.
Elburn officials expressed unease with the lack of a clear, definitive answer.
â€œIâ€™m uncomfortable with this level of murkiness,â€ Trustee Bill Grabarek said.
Police Chief Steve Smith said the CERT volunteers have become an important part of the department.
â€œOne problem is that the KCOEM (Kane County Office of Emergency Management) have been used so much, theyâ€™ve pulled in their horns as to what they do and where they go,â€ Smith said. â€œIf itâ€™s an incorporated area, theyâ€™re not going to come unless they have to.â€
He explained that the federal Department of Homeland Security will have requirements come into effect for municipalities in general, as well as those specific to communities that contain mass transit, like Elburnâ€™s rail line.
â€œThere are things we are not going to be able to do with the size of our department, and we have to rely on volunteers,â€ Smith said.
Besides the regulatory pressures, Smith said the ability to have more people available more quickly in the event of a disaster is important.
â€œIf something serious happens, we need a stop-gap,â€ he said.
Through the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System, officers from neighboring departments could be called for assistance during an emergency in Elburn.
â€œBut it takes time to get people here,â€ Smith said. â€œCERT helps in the short-term.â€
In a disaster scenario, CERT volunteer officers would be used to help evacuate areas, shut down streets, and set up and maintain temporary shelters, among other activities.
â€œWe have a wonderful group of people volunteering, and we want to protect them and the village,â€ Anderson said.
Willrett will explore pricing on private insurance that could provide the coverage needed. In addition, Willrett will re-explore the villageâ€™s current insurance and investigate a suggestion that the village pay volunteers a nominal, fixed amount in order to consider them a paid employee, she said.