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Recruiters hope incentives entice volunteer firefighters

Recruiters hope paid college tuition and access to affordable health care will entice new members to the ranks of volunteer firefighters, ranks that are dwindling in New York State.

Recruitment and retention initiatives were among the issues legislative committee members of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York shared with local volunteer firefighters at Highland Hose Volunteer Fire Company on Sunday afternoon.

“It’s not our father’s fire company anymore,” said Robin Schott, the committee chairman and a volunteer firefighter in Williamsville. “We need to find ways we can recruit and retain new people any way we can.”

In New York State, the rolls of volunteer firefighters have declined by 20 percent in the last 10 years. It’s worse in Erie County, where there are half as many volunteers serving today as there were two decades ago.

Part of the problem is increased time demands for training and certification requirements. “It’s not like it used to be, when you would come to one meeting and one fire call a month,” said David J. Sweet, association director. “The time commitment is definitely more demanding.”

The initial training course alone takes 120 hours.

In addition, 90 percent of calls fielded by volunteer fire companies are emergency medical calls, which require additional emergency medical technician training.

To help recruit new members, the association launched its Higher Education Learning Plan, which reimburses tuition at community colleges for enrolled volunteer firefighters.

“That is a recruitment tool we have that has worked,” Schott said.

The program has helped them pick up more than 35 new volunteers at Erie Community College. “And young members at that,” Schott said.

Funding for that program comes from the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant program, a federal program facing a $2.5 million budget cut.

Another initiative hopes to make health insurance available to volunteers at a less expensive, wholesale rate by requiring health insurers to extend the same premium rates to volunteer firefighters as they do to paid firefighters.

Volunteers, who would pay their own premiums in full, are often unable to afford private market rates.

Firefighters are also seeking job protection for volunteers who are late to or absent from work because of their service during a declared state of emergency.

A bill sponsored by State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, would prohibit employers from terminating workers whose volunteer service during an emergency kept them from their paid jobs.

The association is also asking legislators to make modest pension-type earnings through the Length of Service Award Program exempt from state income tax.

The association has launched a massive recruitment effort throughout the state encouraging citizens to volunteer. It also will support local volunteer fire companies in a statewide Recruit New York event April 27 and 28 when fire houses will hold open houses to recruit new volunteers.