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County Emergency Services to seek state grant to assess problems, find solutions for volunteer fire companies

By Billie Owens

Whatever differences of opinion may exist about how to address the problems faced by small, rural volunteer fire companies, one thing pretty much all the stakeholders agree on is this: they are struggling and need help.

So said Emergency Services Manager Tim Yaeger at Monday afternoon's Public Service Committee meeting.

He asked for permission to apply for a state Management Performance Grant offered as part of the 2015-16 Municipal Restructuring Fund Program. Permission was unanimously granted.

The aim is to secure funds to contract with a consultant to assess the county's firefighting needs.

Yaeger said he and Bill Schutt, the West Battalion coordinator for the Genesee County Emergency Management Office, have talked with County Manager Jay Gsell about bringing a consultant on board. Schutt, a volunteer for more than 25 years with Alabama fire, also works full time as general manager of Mercy EMS, where he manages a staff of more than 60 and its fleet of vehicles.

"We want to look at fire services in Genesee County -- how do we provide that service in the future in a very efficient and professional manner," Yaeger said. "As you know, we've had conversations before, we're struggling, in some places more than others."

The amount of funding available to conduct such a study is "kind of open-ended."

Schutt said the grant is designed for consolidation-of-services projects, but fire service was listed as eligible and after confering with state officials, it was deemed that assessment and evaluation of Genesee County fire services would fit within that scope.

"The 10,000-foot view of what we'd like to look at, is what this grant is asking us to apply for, and it kind of goes down from there," Schutt said. "A lot of it is based on what you'd save for money. I don't think this project is going to be looking at saving money directly, but in the long term it will, so there's a way of working it in there in terms of the long term."

Committee Chair Marianne Clattenburg asked how long the process will take.

A timeline is not known. It would be a process of stages, perhaps two or three studies or consultations. 

"It's not going to be 'here's your information' and we're going to walk away," Yaeger said, "because it's such a vast program. There's so many moving parts to this."

If, say an initial study is done and that takes six or seven months just to identify what they true issues are, that may constitute the first step.

"This is not going to be done in a year or two and find a solution," Yaeger said. "I think it's going to take a few years to get to a position to where we can make some decisions."

It was asked, when looking at the big picture, if there is consenus amongst those in the firefighting community about what the future is and what changes may be forthcoming.

"I think today more than ever, there's a level of agreement that a level of government beyond the local fire company has to find some solutions for them," Yaeger replied. "I think they'll all agree to that -- that they are not able to find those long-term solutions for themselves and they need assistance.

"And the next step up would be to the county, because obviously we're going to be able to benefit everybody here. The issue with the volunteer fire service is you may have consensus today, and then two or three elections from now, the consensus changes."

To that, Clattenburg deadpanned: "Exactly."

"So it's a moving target," Yaeger reiterated, adding that no one should expect sweeping changes anytime soon and noting that Oswego is looking at this issue, but the problems in volunteer firefighting companies are statewide.

Thus he's meeting with fire associations of NYS this week to get the them moving toward a solution. He's already met with WNY fire personnel and emergency coordinators, "all agree...we have to start addressing these things."

"So some may go screaming, but some don't really have much to defend. In many cases, they should be the first to tell you they need assistance," Yaeger said. "They need to be doing something different than what we've been doing right now because it's not working. Right now it's primarily daytime, but we're seeing nighttime problems as well."

Gsell said, actually this is a national issue: "Volunteer fire companies are the backbone, particularly in rural jurisdictions, like ours to some extent, versus urban areas, where they have not just a full-time department but a number of them surrounding in a ring of suburbs.

"In talking with others, they have been able to find solutions that in New York State are not yet on the table, because the state has certain issues and preclusions built into statutes that say 'you just don't do it that way here.' So this (study) might be part of what the future might hold as far as prospective legislation that might need to change."

Any consultant up to the task, Yaeger said would "have to work with us and realize this is going to take some time. The more grant money that becomes available, the more services can be done. The preliminary numbers we were talking about on the phone were good numbers. I think we're trying to keep those numbers small, but understanding that if we expand it to $150,000 that may complete the entire project. ....But it's hard to say exactly what the total will come to."

Committee Member John Deleo asked about the scope of a grant-funded study.

"We're not talking about just two outfits combining together," Deleo said. "Is there a chance we could look at a whole big umbrella? I'm not advocating anything. I'm just asking."

No, this is not about just looking at how to combine or consolidate services.

"There's so many moving parts -- locations of fire stations, response times, and combining -- in some cases there's an opportunity but in our county, not many, because we're fairly spread out already," Yaeger said.

"But we're looking at the entire fire service. What does the city provide? What do the remaining volunteer fire companies provide? And they're all in different categories of capabilities, based on their manpower and their budgetary constraints. We're going to look at this whole thing, absolutely."

The thing that won't be done is approaching the issue with any preconceived notions about a solution.

"The first thing is, everybody understand," Gsell said, "and maybe start developing some consensus around all the constraints there are, and then, how do you address those going into the future."

david spaulding

a never ending study. tell me there are no other counties in the usa who haven't already done this "solution seeker". google it.... 6 months to find the issue? really? don't know where to start ay? first will need a land line and cell phone, next would be a furnished office with computers. need a receptionist to answer phone. well that pretty much uses the grant money, now what? still trying to find the issues.....

Jun 15, 2016, 6:14pm Permalink
Ed Hartgrove

"If, say an initial study is done and that takes six or seven months just to identify what they true issues are, that may constitute the first step.
This is not going to be done in a year or two and find a solution," Yaeger said. "I think it's going to take a few years to get to a position to where we can make some decisions."

OR, the NYS Gaming Commission could adapt their rules to allow emergency services, such as fire departments, to reduce (if not eliminate altogether) their dependence on taxes to operate.

Oops! Sorry. Didn't mean to offer an easier solution. They're right. Much better to pay consulting groups massive amounts of (EXTRA) taxpayer money, for years and years, to figure it out.


Jun 15, 2016, 7:40pm Permalink
david spaulding

I may find this to be a great idea if my application for employment is accepted. I do want an office with a window and a view, oh and i'll need transportation too. there any office space at hen's airport? how long it takes to be vested ? I've got about 4-6 good years left. did I mention health insurance?

Jun 15, 2016, 8:50pm Permalink
Scott Blossom

Changing the gaming laws will not solve one of the problems, funding.

Volunteer departments run fundraisers to make up the gap between what is received from the fire tax and the actual cost of providing fire protection. Asking the departments to self fund the whole cost is totaly nuts. By the way, it required by law that each municipalty provide and pay for fire protection.

The next big problem is manpower. You need manpower to respond to emergencies and, to run the fundraising events. Manpower keeps dwindling away. Recruitment is low. I don't know what a study can do to solve this issue.

The reasons for low manpower are many. The solutions, well, some need a change in attitude from citizens. And, some others need governmental change.

Jun 15, 2016, 11:38pm Permalink
John Roach

The time will come when Genesee County will have to look at a County wide fire district. Too few people trying to keep all the departments going is part of the problem.

Jun 16, 2016, 6:19am Permalink
robert hilchey

Here goes my rant , when the state and federal government got involved with all the mandates !! That's when the volunteer fire service started to fail !! It doesn't take a consultant to fiqure out that a cpaid county fire dept isn't far away !!

Jun 16, 2016, 7:27am Permalink
C. M. Barons

The decline of local fire brigades began decades ago when modern building codes and safer heating and lighting technologies substantially reduced the likelihood of fires. That was followed by a shift in rural economy from local agricultural/business employment to remote manufacturing employment. When the sirens mounted on the fire halls go off (these days) most of the able-bodied, potential volunteers are 20 - 30 miles away earning a living. The culture has changed as well: people are more insular; community and neighborhood are words used exclusively by real estate agents and urban planners. For most individuals fire protection equates to changing the battery in a smoke detector. On the same token fire departments have become cliquey, and they have been politicized since 9/11. Topping off that estranged brew, the loss of community outreach, the cancellation of carnivals, parades, raffles, bingo nights, musters and water ball competitions; volunteer fire departments are out-of-sight/out-of-mind.

Jun 16, 2016, 12:56pm Permalink
Brian Graz

Sounds good doesn't it, because it's a grant. But where does the money for grants come from? Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, taxpayers? Correct!

Is this a "hey how about us" result of the announced $500k-$1m needed to fund a "study" for energy usage at the STAMP Project?

Jun 16, 2016, 10:41pm Permalink
Brian Graz

Here's a suggestion... research the Town of Amherst and it's 10 (all volunteer) fire departments. Granted Amherst has a greatly smaller geographic area, BUT, it has twice the population of Genesee County, to protect.

Jun 16, 2016, 11:08pm Permalink
Daniel Jones

Brian - Most people in Amherst work close to home, CM nails the issues that departments in places like Genesee County are having, the workforce has shifted from a hometown based economy to a commuter one. If you're a member of the Pembroke Volunteer Fire Department and you're working in Buffalo, then you're not going to be able to respond quickly to emergencies. John is also probably right that there may need to be a county-wide fire district, but I can see why some would drag their feet on that, many feel that their departments are well run enough to avoid a merger. There might need to be a small crew of paid firemen to aid volunteer town departments. If the current system isn't doing the job it needs to change.

Jun 17, 2016, 5:48am Permalink
John Roach

Genesee County is 495 square miles, Amherst only 54 square miles.
Genesee County has about 59,500 people, Amherst has about 122,400
Not a great comparison

Jun 17, 2016, 6:18am Permalink
Ed Hartgrove

Daniel. Being an inquisitive type, I have a question.

With an (approximate) population of 125,000 people, just how long, and, how many pairs of "walking shoes", does it take to state that, "Most people in Amherst work close to home"?

And, if I'm not being too inquisitive, what would even prompt someone to embark on such an endeavor?

Jun 17, 2016, 12:27pm Permalink
Brian Graz

I'd say that anyone who works/lives 5 or more miles away from the base would not provide for very efficient emergency response. So what's the benefit of a county-wide district? If a county-wide district could handle the job then why not have the BFD take on the function, they're not that busy, are they?

The fact remains, Amherst services 124,000 residents using 10 all-volunteer fire departments. So let's keep on looking the other way, making excuses, don't even consider the Amherst system, and pray that a new study and some petitioning of Albany will bring about a solution... along with of course, some new mandates and taxes.

Jun 18, 2016, 2:17pm Permalink
John Roach

Ya, looking to Amherst with twice the population and a 10th of the area to cover-less than brilliant.
While looking to Albany would probably be a waste of time, I think we should work with the other GLOW counties to come up with ideas for rural areas like ours, not a highly dense suburban areas like Amherst.

As for the Batavia Fire Dept., I think they would have to be part of a County wide district.

Jun 18, 2016, 5:18pm Permalink
Ed Hartgrove

Thanks, Daniel! Great pdf.

So, I'm guessing the answer to my first two questions would be, "Oh, maybe 2 minutes", and, "one pair of bedroom slippers".

Jun 19, 2016, 10:36am Permalink

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