By ERIC TICHY
Special to the OBSERVER
MAYVILLE - Length of Service Award Programs have become a common tool among volunteer fire departments in New York state to attract and retain membership.
The program, first started in 1990, is a pension-like system that allows volunteers to collect points based on service. The more time put in, the more money firefighters can collect later on when they reach a pre-determined entitlement age. Firefighters with decades of service can collect hundreds of dollars a month.
LOSAPs are often used in municipalities to keep their volunteers around longer. More than 700 fire departments across the state have the program in one form or another.
But you won't find any in Chautauqua County.
"We actually don't have any at all," said Julius Leone, county fire coordinator. "I think it would be a great thing, too. We just don't have any fire department that has a fire service award program here in the county."
Of the county's 39 all-volunteer fire departments, only a handful have ever considered implementing an LOSAP, Leone said. It's unclear if any department has even allowed its town or village voters to decide.
"I know a lot have looked at them, but I really don't know if any have gone as far as putting it up to a vote," Leone said. "I think it just comes down to cost."
He added: "I am a little surprised we don't have any. I think the need is there to keep volunteers around and find ways to bring in new members."
Many fire departments in Erie and Cattaraugus counties have implemented a service award program. Fire officials up north, in particular, have seen the benefits.
"I do think the programs are very effective in motivating experienced firefighters to continue serving, perhaps longer than they had originally anticipated," said Tiger Schmittendorf, Erie County deputy fire coordinator.
Schmittendorf said Erie County saw 600 new volunteers join in 2012, although he conceded it's almost impossible to determine what role a service award program played in attracting those members. Nonetheless, he noted any perk to retain volunteers should be explored.
"Honestly, young kids that join aren't thinking about retirement," he said. "But it does help retain members and keep many involved."
Penflex Inc. is one of the largest LOSAP providers in New York state. In Erie County alone, the Albany-based group works with 36 volunteer fire departments, more than a third of all volunteer departments in the county.
Ed Holohan, Penflex president, said service award programs have become a critical tool for fire departments to retain their membership. Statewide, his company works with 300 fire departments.
"It's like a second pension for some," Holohan said. "It's certainly not the solution for departments to attract more volunteers, but it does help."
Asked if he was surprised no fire company in Chautauqua County has implemented a service award program, Holohan said, "I am a little, yes. But I think the funds are tight."
Organizing a service award program by and large falls upon municipal leaders. Funding an LOSAP requires financial backing, usually from raising taxes within the fire district.
Holohan said he has encountered township supervisors and mayors who have supported a service award program, yet balked at raising taxes. Confusion regarding costs of a program are driving many towns and villages away, he said.
"I think there is a lot of misconceptions out there on what this costs," Holohan said. "Many folks just can't wrap their heads around compensating a volunteer."
Basic LOSAP plans, Holohan said, will raise property taxes as little as $12-$24 a year.
Schmittendorf, meanwhile, said the benefits also hit families.
"I think it's a great reward for not only the firefighters, but as a way of paying back their families for all the sacrifices they've made on their volunteer's behalf," he said.