State To Study Volunteer Fire Department Staffing

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed legislation for state agencies to make recommendations to the governor and state Legislature to better recruit and retain volunteer firefighters.

A.9779/S.7589 was sponsored by Assemblyman Fred Thiele, I-Sag Harbor, and Sen. James Gaughran, D-Syosset, and passed both houses of the legislature unanimously. The legislation creates a 14-member recruitment and retention task force that includes state agencies and designated associations representing volunteer firefighters, to provide the governor and state Legislature with recommendations to assist in the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters.

The task force will have one year to create its report, which is specifically tasked with looking at the current training methods for volunteer firefighters and most effective delivery methods for training; utilization of community colleges, BOCES and state accredited high schools to train firefighters and the creation of pilot programs within community colleges and BOCES that will offer Firefighter 1 certification upon completion; creation of a dedicated bureau within the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control responsible for the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters; analysis of current tax incentives and volunteer firefighter benefit programs and recommendations for those programs; analysis of recruitment and retention programs being successfully utilized in other states and recommendations as to the adoption of similar programs in New York state; and identification of incentive programs that will assist in the recruitment of volunteer firefighters from under-served and/or at-risk populations.

“There has been a noticeable decrease in the amount of volunteer firefighters in New York State in recent years,” said John P. Farrell, president of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York. “The ongoing pandemic and this summer’s hurricane have both highlighted the crucial role that volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel play on the front lines of state emergencies and have shown that volunteers are critical to the safety of New Yorkers.

We applaud Governor Cuomo for signing this important public safety legislation and helping us to continue to protect the citizens of our state. We also wish to express our thanks to Senator Gaughran and Assembly Member Thiele for their strong leadership and hard work in the passage of this vital bill.”

The volunteer fire service’s role has grown and evolved significantly in recent years. In addition to protecting lives and property, volunteer firefighters play an increasingly crucial role in emergency response during natural and manmade disasters. At the same time their role has grown, the number of volunteer firefighters nationally and in New York state has dropped over the past 30 years. In 1983, there are 884,600 volunteer firefighters in the United States. That number was 682,600 in 2017.

Part of Chautauqua County’s response to the shrinking number of volunteer fire departments has been the creation of a paid fly-car system to provide a quick response system to 911 calls while supporting volunteer fire service and ALSTAR EMS, the county’s medical transportation provider. Vehicles are equipped with medications and emergency room equipment.

Neighboring Warren County, meanwhile, is also having issues with availability of volunteer firefighters, particularly during the day. One response has been for the Pleasant Volunteer Fire Department to contract with the city of Warren to have paid city firefighters stationed in Pleasant’s fire station to respond to calls in the township.

The Warren Council of Governments is also having broader talks on ways to help provide EMS services in the county.

“We were in a crisis,” Ben Kafferlin, Warren County commissioner, said during a recent meeting. “We’ve been telling you for 10 yeas that the EMS system was failing. To use an EMS analogy, if it was in distress, it is now in failure. (We are) at the point where so many of the calls are not getting answered in a timely fashion. (We) really need to take action on this now.”


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