090521 wilson drill2

Volunteer firefighter from all over the county worked together as a team during a drill at Wilson in 2014. Numerous agencies were present to simulate a structure fire

The declining number of volunteer firefighters in New York is not a new problem, but it’s one Gov. Kathy Hochul wants to tackle this year.

Hochul included two proposals in her State of the State address to deal with the shortage — allowing “modest compensation” for volunteer firefighters and the creation of a state fund to pay volunteer firefighters a stipend after they complete mandated training.

According to the State of the State book released by the governor’s office, Hochul believes both proposals can boost recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters. Additionally, the stipend will help cover the costs of training and lost wages while volunteer firefighters are away from their jobs.

From 1998 to 2021, the number of volunteer firefighters in New York decreased from 110,000 to 75,000, a 32% drop. More than three-quarters of volunteer fire departments have fewer firefighters than they did two decades ago. During that same period, calls increased by 29%.

John D’Alessandro, secretary of the Firefighters Association of the State of New York, told The Citizen that the complexity of the calls is also increasing and there are other demands for service. He noted that volunteer firefighters from the Capital Region were sent to the Buffalo area to aid with the blizzard response in December.

“While all those things are happening, we’re being asked to address it with less and less people,” D’Alessandro said.

Riley Shurtleff, the director of Cayuga County Emergency Services who previously served as a captain of the Genoa Volunteer Fire Department, explained in an email to The Citizen that the decreasing number of volunteer firefighters occurred “as economic changes and social model shifts have caused many people to be less inclined to serve their communities at all, let alone for no pay as a volunteer in a position that is both physically and emotionally taxing.”

D’Alessandro and Shurtleff agreed that Hochul’s proposals may help address the shortage. D’Alessandro said the Firefighters Association of the State of New York supports the creation of a state fund that would provide a stipend to firefighters who complete training courses.

The state Office of Fire Prevention and Control holds the training sessions, but they can last multiple days. For volunteer firefighters with full-time jobs, they will need to take time off from work to attend the classes.

“Anything that can be done to defray the economic cost of taking training is very worthwhile and welcomed by FASNY,” D’Alessandro said. “Simply put, a better trained firefighter is a better firefighter. We always encourage firefighters of all demographics to continue their training.”

But Shurtleff thinks the proposal fails to acknowledge other issues that may prevent people from becoming volunteer firefighters. There are regular increases in mandatory minimum training hours for new firefighters, he explained, and exterior firefighters should not have to attend training sessions if they do not want to achieve self-contained breathing apparatus qualifications or enter buildings. He suggested other ideas for Hochul to pursue, including revised training systems.

With Hochul’s proposal to allow limited compensation, D’Alessandro and Shurtleff raised questions about how that would affect benefits available for volunteer firefighters.

In New York, there is a state Volunteer Firefighters’ Benefits Law — a form of workers’ compensation for volunteer firefighters if they are injured in the line of duty. D’Alessandro said FASNY wants to see more details about how firefighters could get paid while retaining those benefits.

“Getting a few dollars to respond to a call pales in comparison to, God forbid, someone falls off a ladder or gets burned in a house fire,” he added.

The answers to those questions will likely come in the governor’s executive budget proposal, which will be released in the coming weeks. Many of Hochul’s proposals will be part of upcoming budget negotiations between her staff and the state Legislature.

While awaiting those details, D’Alessandro and Shurtleff are encouraged that the governor’s office has acknowledged there is a problem and are proposing ways to fix it.

“If the governor wishes to address these concerning trends toward declining volunteerism as well as training requirements, any positive changes are welcomed,” Shurtleff said.

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