DEPEW, N.Y. (WIVB) — Congressman Chris Collins, Erie County legislators and local fire officials are calling on the federal government to dole out millions of dollars to help boost volunteer firefighters in Western New York.
Over the past several years, the offer of free college has been an important incentive to grow local ranks.
Volunteer fire departments, like those in Getzville and Depew, are a crucial part of the region’s fire services, with 99 volunteer departments in Erie County alone.
But the number of volunteers has been on the steady decline.
On Friday, the Clarence Republican and others called on the federal government to release millions in what are known as SAFER grants, which traditionally help pay for temporary staffing at fire houses and police departments.
Five years ago, the Firefighter Association of the State of New York, or FASNY, started using a portion of those federal funds for tuition reimbursement for its members.
Those federal funds dried up, leaving FASNY to fund the program by itself. It, too, is running out of money.
“If we can offer a sweetener to these young men and women, it may help them join a volunteer fire company where they may serve for 40 or 50 years,” Collins said. But we do need to get it done. FASNY is funding this out of their own pocket right now, and they have a limited amount of money to do that with.”
Collins said the federal bill for money from FEMA is expected to receive bipartisan support.
“This is one of those issues that does unite us all. It is about community, it is about safety, so for all these reasons, I’m confident that these types of programs will continue across America,” he said. “There’s no political angle here. … America likes to see us working together and this is a good example, I think, working together for the good of our communities.”
In the past five years, more than 2,500 volunteer firefighters have received tuition reimbursement for community colleges across New York state. Of those, more than 400 were from Erie County.