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Task force seeks outside help to solve emergency services 'crisis without evidence'

By Mike Pettinella

Tim Yaeger calls it a “crisis without evidence.”

Eric Wies says it’s time for “drastic change.”

Yaeger, coordinator of Genesee County Emergency Services, and Wies, president of the Bergen Volunteer Fire Department, reported today to the Genesee County Legislature’s Public Service Committee on the findings of a task force set up to take an in-depth look at the state of emergency response in the county.

In short, what they have found is a critical shortage of volunteer firefighters. The situation has become so dire that some fire companies don’t have enough personnel to respond to an emergency and are having to call neighboring departments to assist.

“People in the system know it, but outside (in the general public) they don’t see the severe staffing issues,” he said. “We need a sustained response – 24/7 and 365. We need sustainability.”

He said studies of the problem – the lack of young men and women to replace those who have served their communities as volunteer firefighters for many years – have been conducted at different times, but nothing has been done about it.

“It’s been a matter of pointing a finger to blame somebody,” he said. “Nobody is to blame. There is no time (to waste). It’s more demanding every day.”

Wies, the task force chair (in photo at right), said that the Bergen Volunteer FD has two members over the age of 65 and they're still active.

“We don’t have an influx of young individuals,” he said, supporting Yaeger’s statement that “it’s a young person’s game.”

Wies said discussions within the task force and with county fire officials brought out a sobering reality: “We need change, and not just change, but we need drastic change. And not just immediately but going forward for our residents.”

He said the current structure of emergency services in Genesee County doesn't measure up to what is required to ensure complete coverage.

“If we were to take a map of Genesee County and imagine what emergency services would look like in this county – from scratch – it wouldn’t look anything like it is today … There has to be some drastic change in the framework.”

Wies said the committee concluded -- due to the fact that all have full-time jobs along with their part-time and volunteer roles in emergency and governmental services -- that it wouldn’t be able to develop an implementation plan.

“We’re not looking for a planning document that would sit on a shelf. We want a planning document that will evolve with the county for years to come but also to implement change because we feel we’re on the verge of meeting that change,” he said.

He said the committee reached out to firms that with expertise in evaluating municipal emergency response, and heard back from three of them – Center for Public Safety Management LLC, VFIS and Municipal Resources Inc. The task force then reviewed the proposals from each company, conducted interviews and listened to presentations prior to choosing MRI, which is based in Plymouth, N.H.

“From a pricing standpoint, the lowest price was $27,400 and, the highest price, with some annual options, was from MRI at $94,625,” he said. “Ultimately, the company that we felt was the best fit for us is MRI and, unfortunately, that’s most expensive option.”

Wies said reasons in that decision included the fact that MRI’s team leader represents a municipal fire department that is similar in size to what the county offers and that MRI is willing to come to this area with a five-person team to hold meetings with county officials, all emergency services departments, law enforcement and business people.

“… and we definitely agree that they could provide the most insight as to what situation we have, what the issues are and hopefully coming out with a solution that will fit us for years to come,” he said, adding that the next step is figuring a way to fund a potential agreement with MRI.

Both men said they need “stakeholder buy-in” with a goal of maintaining the identities and utilizing the current town and village fire companies.

Yaeger said it’s all about “what the citizens deserve and what do they expect (when an emergency occurs)? And we need to get there.”

When asked if there was a statewide push to address this issue, Yaeger said “nobody has had the audacity to stand up” to effect change. “New York has to wake up and realize there’s a severe problem in our state."

Prompting Wies to say, “That’s why we think it’s best for Genesee County to go it alone.”

Others on the task force are County legislators Gordon Dibble and Gregg Torrey, Elba FD Chief Mike Heale, Elba Town Supervisor Donna Hynes, Pavilion Town Supervisor Robert LaPoint, Byron FD Chief Bob Mruczek and County Emergency Services Deputy Coordinator Bill Schutt.

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