WILTON, N.D. — Paul Schauer was one of the first in Wilton to receive a volunteer emergency responder license plate.
"I think just about everybody on the squad took advantage of that opportunity," said the volunteer ambulance driver, who is also a Lutheran pastor.
North Dakota voters in 2018 approved a statutory initiative by 64% to provide volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel with red-colored license plates free of charge that grant admission to state parks.
Since it took effect on Dec. 6, more than 2,550 sets of plates have been distributed to qualified volunteers, according to the North Dakota Department of Transportation. Volunteers must apply for the plates.
Mandan Rural Fire Chief Lynn Gustin said 10 or 12 firefighters of his 32-member volunteer department have applied for and received plates since February or March.
Gustin said he supported Measure 4, viewing the special plates as an incentive and "good deal for first responders" with voters' approval. He said he may apply for a plate this fall, though his pickup has a personalized license plate.
Bismarck Rural Fire Chief Michael Voigt said his department encountered "a quandary" with the plates as the fire department includes paid, part-time employees who meet the state's volunteer definition.
"We don't want to basically create a situation where it looks like over here we're saying we're not volunteers for the purposes of all our payroll and everything that we do, but then we bend the rules over here and we say that we are volunteers because this law reads a certain way," Voigt said. "I just don't want to create that with the public."
He added his department will leave it to North Dakota lawmakers to adjust or clarify volunteer language in the 2021 legislative session. Lawmakers passed a bill in their 2019 legislative session to put criteria in definitions related to the plates, such as volunteers' membership and pay.
Since early May, Dan Schelske, park manager of Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, said he’s seen about six of the license plates at the park south of Mandan.
License plates are something he takes notice of as visitors from other states frequent the park. He's also seen the red plates around Bismarck-Mandan.
"There's a few floating around. They're really easy to spot," Schelske said.
Schauer said he was neutral on Measure 4 but applied for plates "just to see how it worked." He received his plates in January and affixed them to his pickup.
Some Wilton ambulance volunteers didn't apply for plates due to their "additional burden to taxpayers" and easy identification, he added. Schauer said he had wondered if the plates' visibility would make responders "a target" in some instances, such as an active shooter.
"Those red plates do stick out," he said, but also called them "a nice gesture," especially for volunteers who log many hours on call.
NDDOT in 2018 estimated a combined 10-year revenue loss to the highway tax distribution fund and state parks of about $17.7 million for Measure 4's fiscal impact.
About 11,000 people serve volunteer fire departments and ambulance services in North Dakota.