Fire departments look to reduce training burden for volunteers

One suggestion is to reimburse current members for training expenses and to pay new members for completing the courses

Watertown Daily News

LOWVILLE, N.Y. — Several fire departments in Lewis County are working together to reduce the burden of training requirements placed on volunteers.

The numbers of volunteers in emergency services has decreased since the federal and state governments have raised the required hours for certification.

In November, Robert A. MacKenzie III, emergency management director/fire coordinator, said the more rigorous training requirements are less of a burden for paid service providers and that state and federal government officials have not considered those on the volunteer side.

“There are often times when one sits back and looks at the amount of training that we do ... And you wonder to yourself, ‘When did I start subsidizing the fire department or EMS agency that I work for?’” Mr. MacKenzie said.

Mr. MacKenzie said for EMTs, the cost of the training classes can range from $50 to $300, plus the additional costs for mileage and hotel stays. Free training classes for firefighter are offered regionally, but there are still the costs for books, mileage and hotel stays.

The smaller departments in the county do not have training costs as line items in their budgets, Mr. MacKenzie said, because they cannot afford it.

Paying for training
One suggestion is for departments to reimburse current members for expenses incurred by the increased training hours and to pay new members for completing the courses to become certified.

Pete McLane of the Beaver River Volunteer Fire Department said volunteers who receive funding to finish their courses should be compelled to sign a contract.

“If we give you $600 and you complete your course, you’re going to give us a minimum of one year of service,” Mr. McLane said.

Mr. MacKenzie listed a few items fire departments could provide to help retain members, such as a group life insurance policies, supplemental disability insurance, tuition for classes, mileage reimbursement, clothing allowances and reimbursement for annual physicals. Providing these services costs money, Mr. MacKenzie said.

“Should we have to flip chickens to buy turnout gear to protect your house?” Mr. MacKenzie said. “Should we have to stand in front of our fire halls when it is raining and snowing and crappy outside and go, ‘Please give us money, so if your house ever catches fire we have turnout gear so we can protect it?’ That is ridiculous, but we have no other choice.”

When asking municipalities for funding, the departments need to have documentation ready to explain their funding needs. Mr. MacKenzie said it is time for departments to tell their stories.

He said he thinks the municipalities need to have a greater involvement in helping with these issues, especially with funding.

In January, Mr. MacKenzie said public safety is not a good place to cut when it come to budgets.

Volunteers provide a service that would otherwise cost municipalities hundred of thousands of dollars if they had to pay a department for services, Mr. MacKenzie said.

Steve Monnat, of Croghan Volunteer Fire Department EMS, proposed that once the volunteer passes the class and gets an EMT certificate from the state, the department would provide a $500 stipend after they meet their active quota of calls for the year. Then when a member does a refresher course, the department should provide another $500 stipend.

He also proposed paying drivers $25 a call and an EMT $50 a call.

“I am sorry it has come to that, but we pay to have our trash taken out and our sidewalks shoveled,” Mr. Monnat said.

Consolidation of services
The topic of combining departments in the county as a way to consolidate resources also was brought to the table.

County Manager Elizabeth Swearingin said proposals that are selling in Albany have an element of self-assessment of problems, accompanied by a solid plan to fix them.

“We recognize the problem and here’s what we did about it — we started sharing services,” Mrs. Swearingin said. “Shared services is the golden mantra of today.”

If the county can prove that some departments are able to combine and eliminate the need for millions in equipment, that will sell well in Albany, Mrs. Swearingin said.

Mrs. Swearingin said this might help the departments secure funding and get the attention needed to get some training exemptions.

“If you have done nothing and go to the table they are going to say, ‘Don’t bother me,’” Mrs. Swearingin said. “But if you said, ‘We have done our part we need some additional help,’ that is a much different sell.”

“I firmly believe that we as the emergency service have to help out ourselves a little bit,” said Timothy L. Bush, Lowville fire chief. “Maybe it’s time that we sat down and we looked at what can we do to combine.”

Mr. Bush said the county has millions of dollars in fire equipment sitting idle and not being used.

“Do we need to have as many fire departments as we do? Do we need to heat the fire halls? ... Do we need to have all of that stuff?” Mr. Bush said. “Or could we look to combine some areas together?”

Mr. Bush said if the departments were to combine, it would take care of the manpower and financial issues. The other side is that the departments could work together to create a county training program.

“We could send our people to a county program, instead of a state program, and we could have people from each department participate in the training,” Mr. Bush said. “We need to work together, we need to combine and just be the Lewis County fire and EMS service.”

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