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Free tuition at ECC set for volunteer firefighters; County OKs program seen starting in fall

Volunteer firefighters in Erie County could soon have a new incentive to stay with their local fire company: the potential for free tuition toward an associate's degree at Erie Community College.

Officials in Erie County have spent six weeks working out a bureaucratic kink that has kept the county's volunteer firefighters from tapping into a new grant available statewide that lets volunteer firefighters get reimbursed for tuition for a two-year degree.

Now, officials expect the county's volunteer firefighters to be eligible for the benefit starting in the fall, and they hope it will also serve as a recruitment tool to attract young men and women to dozens of fire companies throughout the county, as well as a retention tool.

"If I'm losing people because they have to focus on a job to pay for their education, it's an added incentive for them to stay," said Daniel Neaverth Jr., the county's commissioner of emergency services.

Under the program, which has been available in other counties since last fall, volunteer firefighters who make a five-year commitment to a local fire company could get reimbursed for tuition for a first-time associate's degree at ECC.

Students who maintain a 4.0 grade point average would be eligible for full tuition reimbursement. Tuition reimbursement is done on a sliding scale based on grade point average, said Richard C. Washousky, ECC's executive vice president of academic affairs.

Volunteer firefighters in the program would pay tuition up front and would later be reimbursed for the expense. Washousky said the students could work toward any associate's degree offered at the college.

The Firemen's Association of the State of New York last year unveiled the tuition program for volunteer firefighters after obtaining a $4.2 million "Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response" grant through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

But fire companies staffed by volunteers in Erie County were cut out of the tuition benefit because the county was already using money from the same federal grant program.

The county has used the money to pay for new volunteer firefighters to complete the Firefighter 1 Course -- a training course required before firefighters can enter a building during a fire.

Tom Chmielowiec Sr., ECC support specialist for fire protection and emergency programs, said representatives of federal, state and local lawmakers were brought together along with fire company officials earlier this year to address the issues that kept volunteer firefighters in the county from getting the tuition benefit.

He said Erie was one of five counties in the state that couldn't access the new program.

The meeting led to discussions to work out the details of how Erie County could access both sets of grant funds and to ensure that the grants would not fund duplicative programs.

The County Legislature on Thursday voted unanimously to support the effort to access the statewide grant.

Chmielowiec said officials also need grant administrators from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to sign off on the changes before the tuition program will become available to local volunteer firefighters.

"It helps to give back something to our firefighters," said Legislator Edward Rath III, who first learned from firefighters at the North Amherst Fire Company that they were concerned that local volunteer firefighters could not access the tuition reimbursement.

Neaverth said he expects fire companies will start using the reimbursement as a recruiting tool this summer. Those interested in the program should contact their local fire company or the county's Department of Emergency Services for more information, he said.

email: djgee@buffnews.com