The Safety Of Our Community Depends On Volunteers

A Legislative Column from Assemblyman Steve Hawley (R,I,C-Batavia)

There is no doubt that the safety of our community depends greatly on the sacrifice and dedication of our local volunteer emergency service personnel and firefighters. In fact, according to the United States Fire Administration, of the 1,148,800 firefighters in the nation, 825,450 are volunteers.

Additionally, 95 percent of volunteers serve in departments that protect populations less than 25,000 and more than 50 percent of these volunteers are located in small, rural departments that protect a population of less than 2,500. Because here in Western New York these smaller, more rural volunteer departments are our emergency response providers, I wanted to learn more about how, as a state legislator, we can provide for our volunteer responders and firefighters in order to protect them and our community at large.

Working together with my colleagues, we formed a committee to tour the state and meet with volunteer emergency personnel and firefighters, the first task force of its kind. Part of this tour included a stop right here in the 139th Assembly District. With legislators from across the state, I listened to the men and women serving as volunteer firefighters and emergency responders and learned that one of the most pressing issues for them is recruitment.

To address this concern, I worked together with our local community colleges to create scholarships for those who choose to become volunteer firefighters and emergency responders. I am happy to report that the first scholarship program was created at Genesee Community College (GCC) and will provide 20 students, who are volunteer firefighters or emergency responders, with $500 scholarships toward their tuition at any campus. GCC went another step further and created another special full-tuition scholarship to be awarded to one member of the Batavia Volunteer Fire Department annually. I would like to thank GCC for making these scholarships a reality and would like to encourage our other local colleges to create similar scholarships at their schools.

Additionally, to address the other concerns raised at the public forum, my legislative colleagues and I created new legislation to help support volunteer firefighters and emergency personnel. Assembly Bill 1090 will create the Volunteer Firefighter and Ambulance Worker Protection and Incentive Act to provide first responders with incentives and rewards to foster recruitment. Assembly Bill 1611 provides an income tax credit for volunteer first responders of up to $1,000 and Assembly Bill 5875 will save fire departments training costs by exempting firefighters, who drive fire vehicles, from commercial drivers’ licensing requirements.

As a life member of the Stafford Fire Department, I have personally served as a volunteer firefighter for 25 years. From my experiences there and from what we learned with the Regional Forums on Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Services Providers, I am extremely dedicated to ensuring our volunteer first responders are protected and have the tools they need to continue keeping our community safe.

I encourage all residents who are interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter or emergency responder to contact their local fire department to sign up today.