By ERIC TICHY
Special to the OBSERVER
MAYVILLE - Local and state tuition reimbursement programs may entice area firefighters to stick around Chautauqua County.
The county's SAFER program was developed as a recruitment and retainment tool for local fire departments and emergency medical service agencies hoping to keep up their enrollment. In return for five years worth of fire service obligation, students can receive partial or full tuition reimbursement.
Under the program, an application process determines admission, which if successful would reimburse tuition costs to a local educational institution within the county. Although in its infancy, the program already is paying off in the eyes of county fire officials.
"It's really a program for those who want to further their education and remain in Chautauqua County," said Dan Imfeld, deputy fire coordinator. Imfeld said the reimbursement program is fully funded by a federal grant and does not involve taxpayer support.
"We have plenty of funding, and we have plenty of room to take many more students," he said.
So how does the SAFER initiative work? The recipient pays for any college tuition up front, Imfeld said. Once classes are completed, students will be reimbursed; textbooks or other fees are not covered in the program.
The program, which can be used by a member of one of the county's 42 volunteer fire companies, can be used for part- or full-time students.
"We want to offer folks some incentive to keep them in the community," Imfeld said. "We have seen some promising students already come through."
The county program closely mirrors one on the state level, run through the Firemen's Association of New York. The new initiative, dubbed FASNY HELP, also would reimburse college tuition in return for fire service within the state. Deadline to apply for the state grant originally was Feb. 1 but has since been delayed to Feb. 15.
"We believe FASNY HELP is an important incentive for students to give back to their local communities as they continue their education," said James Burns, FASNY president.
"In light of the recent natural disasters we've faced and the chronic need for more manpower across the state, we need dedicated volunteers now more than ever," he said.
According to Imfeld, an agreement has been reached with the state, allowing potential recipients the benefit of receiving both state and county grants while in college.