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Volunteers are saving lives, money

OBSERVER file photo First responders, many of whom are volunteers, help battle a blaze in Portland in 2022.

Sound the alarms. An economic impact study released this week by the Firefighters Association of the State of New York reveals a tremendous value in the work of some 80,000 volunteers.

These individuals — and the departments and communities they serve — are saving state taxpayers $4.7 billion annually in pay, benefits, operating, maintenance and capital costs. “This report underscores the importance and value of the volunteer firefighting service to New York,” FASNY President Edward Tase Jr. said in a press release. “Without the dedication and service of the brave volunteers throughout the state, local taxpayers would face a significant financial burden to fund the type of emergency response they are accustomed to. Our volunteer firefighters train extensively to be able to respond to their neighbors in a time of need, and we are proud to do our part to keep this great state safe and taxpayer costs for fire protection low.”

As part of the 59-page study, the document emphasizes the role of volunteer firefighters in safeguarding New York’s communities and helping to save lives. The brigade of volunteers in the state provides vital protection and services during emergencies and contribute significantly to their communities through continuous training, outreach, and fire safety education. They also play a critical role in the statewide response plans to major emergencies and natural disasters.

Some of the other key findings from the report included:

¯ Without volunteers, 31,058 full-time paid firefighters would need to be hired.

¯ Of New York state’s 1,640 fire departments, 93.2% are all-volunteer or mostly volunteer.

¯ If the state switched to an all-paid fire service, government property taxes would increase between 5.8% and 133% depending on the county with an additional one-time cost of $8.17 billion to acquire existing structures, vehicles and equipment.

While spotlighting these current savings, there are some warning signals that are not addressed in the analysis. In recent years, especially in smaller departments, filling the ranks of these departments is getting tougher.

Within the past three weeks, The Buffalo News has focused on struggles facing the Blasdell volunteer department, which is now relying on neighboring agencies to respond to calls. According to an article last week, Blasdell’s department has not answered a call since October, and the village sold its ambulance. Without new blood, it could become the first volunteer department in Erie County to go out of business.

“It is a terribly dangerous equation: more calls, more complex calls, being asked to go outside our own community and do this with far less people,” John S. D’Alessandro, department secretary, told the News.

Chautauqua County departments also have noted the pinch. Some volunteer companies, two in the city of Dunkirk, have disbanded over a lack of volunteers. Those include the Murray Hose Co. 4 in 2021 and Dunkirk Hose Co. 1 in 2017. In making its announcement, Hose Co. 1 said the decision was due to “an aging and declining membership … (and) Hose 1 could no longer contribute for the benefit of the city of Dunkirk in fire protection.”

Dave Hazelton has served as a volunteer firefighter for more the 45 years in addition to being an emergency medical technician. In 2021, he shared his concerns about an older Brocton department that was losing members during a Village Board meeting.

“We have an aging fire department and you guys are going to be forced with a major issue five years from now,” Hazleton said, noting the average age of the department then as 52. “… In five years, we’re going to be 57 unless we get a whole bunch of new people. Fighting fires and making EMS calls is not an old person’s job.”

According to the FASNY study, our county currently has 84 paid firefighters. It estimates that without the volunteer operations another 338 positions would have to be added at a potential total cost of $46.6 million.

That’s a heavy lift. However, some of the slack is currently being picked up by the Chautauqua County Fly Car system, which has become more necessary as volunteer departments continue to face dwindling numbers. In 2021, the program responded to 5,576 calls, up from 4,861 in 2019.

“We are a blended service in Chautauqua County,” Noel Guttman, county fire coordinator, told staff writer Gregory Bacon in 2022. “We are working with volunteers, we are working with other ambulance services, and we’re working with the paid fire departments, because the overall goal always has been and always will be to give the best patient care we can to anybody we’re called to.”

For now, that formula appears to have some merit. It also could be a snapshot for how rural emergencies are handled on a more regional basis with Chautauqua County likely needing to take the lead.

John D’Agostino is editor of The Post-Journal, OBSERVER and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-487-1111, ext. 253.

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