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Response to Springville fire highlights volunteer firefighter recruitment crisis

There are over a dozen pieces of legislation proposed by the Assembly and Senate in Albany, and Gov. Hochul wants to pay volunteer firefighters, but is that enough?

BUFFALO, N.Y. — More than a dozen volunteer fire companies responded to the apartment complex fire in Springville Monday night. 

One person was arrested and charged with arson. No one was injured.

Crews from as far as Hamburg and Gowanda responded to the scene. 

"Years ago, we could handle this with three or four or five companies," Springville assistant chief Phil Drozd said. 

Within the emergency services industry, it's no secret that recruitment numbers are down. 

According to the Firefighters Association of the State of New York (FASNY), there were approximately 125,000 volunteer firefighters in 2000. 

Today, that number is closer to 75,000. 

"The types of emergencies they're asked to be responding to, it gets more complicated," said John D’Alessandro from FASNY. 

D'Alessandro applauds efforts by lawmakers to incentivize volunteering, but he also insists that there must be a motive to serve your community as well. 

"Incentives may get your attention," D'Alessando said. "But you have to have that commitment to want to be able to train and respond on those days when your friends, your family, your neighbors need you."

At the end of 2022, Governor Kathy Hochul signed a bill that provides a property tax break for volunteer firefighters. They need a minimum of two years of service to receive the benefit. 

However, individual counties need to opt into the program. 

On Tuesday, members of the minority caucus in the Erie County Legislature called on their Democratic colleagues to opt into the program. 

"If we can help them to recruit one or two more members, then that is our job," said Legislator Christopher Greene. 

Greene represents the 6th legislative district in the county. 

"That's what we put forth today," Greene said. "I'm going to encourage my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to join me in supporting this."

In the 276 page state of the state booklet, Governor Hochul proposed providing "limited compensation" to volunteer firefighters, as well as a stipend for any training they need that would pull a volunteer out of their regular job.

Senator Patrick Gallivan is proposing a bill that would compensate employers. Gallivan believes this will encourage employers to promote volunteering to their employees. 

"[Give] a wage tax credit to employers, or somebody who is a volunteer so that they could leave work in the middle of a shift, for instance, and respond to a fire in the community, hopefully, save a life," Senator Gallivan told 2 On Your Side. 

Senator George Borrello wants Albany lawmakers to get out of their own way and work with volunteer fire departments. 

"Let's do what's not often done in Albany, and that's to sit down with the stakeholders and ask them what they think would be best," said Senator Borrello.

Senator Sean Ryan says he helped create a task force that looked at low volunteer retention rates. 

"The task force recently completed their work at the end of 2022, and the legislature looks forward to receiving their report. The next step is to utilize their report to make important changes to assist volunteer fire departments across New York," Senator Ryan's office said. 

Senator Tim Kennedy's office sent a lengthy response to WGRZ's request for an interview. 

"In New York State, nearly 95% of fire departments are partially or entirely volunteer-run. Recruitment is key in maintaining and expanding these services, and with an aging population, these efforts are critical, which is why I carry a bill that would establish a college loan forgiveness program for New York State residents that commit a minimum of five years to a volunteer fire or ambulatory department. Additionally, I sent out an informational mailer just a few months ago to residents within my district about the volunteer firefighter opportunities that exist. I've also secured funding for firefighters in Cheektowaga to upgrade their Emergency Communications Radio System, to ensure that first responders have access to the effective communication tools they need when responding to an emergency. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to retention, but my office is actively assisting departments with recruitment efforts on a variety of fronts in hopes that we can effectively continue to prioritize public safety."

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