Officials with the Firefighters Association of the State of New York are hopeful new investments in Gov. Kathy Hochul's executive budget will help rebuild New York's fleet of volunteer firefighters, which have rapidly declined over the last two decades.
Hochul proposed a $10 million fund in the 2023-24 budget to build up the next generation of volunteer firefighters. The fund would support stipends for volunteers who complete core training, serving as an incentive for recruitment and retention.
"It's unique — it's novel," John D'Alessandro, FASNY's association secretary. "It's thinking outside the box, which we need to do, given the drastic decline in people volunteering."
The number of volunteer firefighters in New York has dropped from 120,000 to about 80,000 over the last 20 years, according to FASNY. Volunteers often prove to be critical to emergency responses in many upstate and rural communities.
Paying for training is typically the firefighter's responsibility.
D'Alessandro could not recall similar proposals or investments in past state budgets to support the fire service.
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara supports the $10 million fund, but thinks it should be more as departments respond to more calls and complex incidents with fewer people.
"In rural communities, we rely more on our volunteer services," said Santabarbara, a Democrat from Rotterdam. "We ask our volunteers to do more and more. ...It's very difficult to recruit volunteers, and it's more difficult, especially, in some communities more than others. But we rely on these services to keep us safe."
Hochul also proposed changing state law to allow municipalities to provide nominal fees to volunteer firefighters for their time and service.
Lawmakers are working on details, including hours of service and other requirements to get the benefit.
But there's concerns wealthier tax districts will opt-in while others won't, putting areas with less resources at a further disadvantage.
Assemblyman John McDonald, a Cohoes Democrat, says those issues will be part of negotiations this week as lawmakers finalize their one-house budgets.
"Some communities may not be able to do that," McDonald said. "And therefore, are we going to see volunteers moving from one department to the other? That's a legitimate concern I think we have to work through."
The Senate and Assembly's counter budget proposals will be released sometime next week.
"We are supportive of the proposal — we just want to make sure that we're listening to the volunteer firefighters to hear any concerns they have," he added. "For communities that really rely on volunteer service, we need to make sure that there's enough support for them because, otherwise, that will be a problem."
Changes made in last year's budget allow counties to opt-in to a local property tax exemption for volunteer firefighters.
Hochul's budget also proposes $10 million to improve the state Fire Academy in Montour Falls in the Finger Lakes and to hire 22 new full-time employees to expand availability, location and frequency of firefighter trainings statewide.
D'Alessandro is grateful for Hochul bringing her sensitivity for the fire service and first responders to the Executive Chamber, noting she grew up in a community in Buffalo that relied on volunteers. As lieutenant governor, Hochul never missed the annual ceremony honoring fallen firefighters, D'Alessandro tearfully recalled.
"Those are our lost brothers and sisters," said D'Alessandro, his voice cracking with emotion. "And for the governor to come and say the things she does, is — it says a lot about her."
Officials with FASNY are also pushing for legislation this session to bring parity to their workers' compensation, reimbursements for training materials and classes, funding for localities for more code enforcement officers to reduce safety risks and to make cancer treatment covered in volunteer firefighter benefits.
Santabarbara also sponsors legislation to give volunteer firefighters free tuition at State University of New York colleges and universities, or another incentive to attract young people to the industry.
"Volunteers do make that personal commitment in addition to their family responsibilities, their employment responsibilities, to be there when their community needs them," D'Alessandro said.