Albany, N.Y.-- Warning that localities face a huge expense down the road if local volunteer emergency services continue to struggle to attract and retain volunteers, State Senator George H. Winner, Jr. (R-C, Elmira)has introduced legislation known as the "Emergency Services Volunteer Incentive Act" to help communities fend off an ongoing statewide decline in the ranks of volunteer firefighters and emergency services personnel.
"The local volunteer fire department has long been a bedrock of community pride, service and protection, but we better recognize that it remains increasingly difficult for many local fire companies to recruit and retain volunteers. Volunteer recruitment is a serious challenge," said Winner. According to the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, the number of volunteer firefighters statewide has declined from 140,000 in the early 1990s to approximately 110,000 today. Volunteer emergency medical technicians (EMTs) experienced a decline from more than 50,000 to 35,000 during the same period.
The Firemen’s Association has declared 2005 its "Year of Recruitment and Retention" in an effort to increase public awareness of the need for volunteers.
While the importance of local first responders to community safety and security has been widely recognized and praised since the September 11th tragedy, Winner said that it continues to be difficult for many local fire departments and ambulance companies to recruit and retain volunteers. He noted that some departments already employ paid, around-the-clock firefighters supported by volunteers.
"If this struggle continues, localities and local property taxpayers face another costly burden down the road. It would cost billions of dollars for localities to pay for the critical services currently provided by volunteer firefighters and EMTs. We need to do more to recognize and reward the contributions of emergency services volunteers," Winner said. The Firemen’s Association estimates that volunteer firefighters save local taxpayers $3 billion annually.
Three years ago New York established a college tuition incentive program for volunteers. The state has also authorized some counties, including Steuben, to provide as much as a 10% real property tax exemption on the primary residence of a volunteer firefighter or ambulance worker. A new law enacted late last year created a temporary task force on "Volunteer Firefighter and EMT Recruitment and Retention." The task force will be meeting and issuing recommendations this year.
The "Emergency Services Volunteer Incentive Act" being sponsored by Winner would:
> offer a $2,000 annual personal income tax deduction for volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers;
> authorize municipalities to offer real property tax exemptions on property owned and used as a primary residence by emergency services volunteers. Municipalities would be authorized to grant an exemption of up to 5% of the assessed value of the property;
> exempt motor vehicles owned and used in the performance of duty by an emergency services volunteer from motor vehicle registration fees and vehicle use taxes; and
> allow emergency services volunteers to participate in certain public employee health insurance plans.