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emergency management

August 19, 2019 - 10:35pm

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If you live outside the City of Batavia in Genesee County, the ability of volunteer fire companies to get enough able-bodied manpower to your house in a timely manner if it ever caught on fire is reaching a crisis stage, Tim Yaeger, emergency management coordinator, told members of the County Legislature today. 

"We're out of time," Yaeger said. "If anybody says that we've got time, we don't. We're out of time."

Volunteer fire companies throughout the county are running on a bare minimum of staffing. Many volunteers are past the age of retirement. And chiefs are getting burned out because there are few young firefighters with the training and experience to replace them.

Yaeger pulled no punches for the legislature and painted a pretty dire picture.

"You know you're out of time when the chair of the fire districts association is riding on an engine and he's well over 65 and he looks back and his crew is the average age of 72 years old and he thinks 'what do we do when we get there and it's actually an emergency?' The trucks go in. There are people on it. But can they do the job when they get there?"

The business model of volunteer firefighting is broken, Yaeger said, broken by changes in society -- people don't volunteer as much as they used to -- and changes in firefighting. The days of a young guy signing up, showing up the next day in his turnout gear to man a fire hose are over. Now a volunteer requires hours and hours of training, certification, and more training.

The state requires firefighters to be trained to national standards and firefighting has evolved to include multiple specialties, from haz-mat to rope teams, to extrication, to search and rescue, and medics.

"It's a dangerous job," Yaeger said. "It's a job that you have to be physically able to perform. And my concern is not only the numbers that have diminished but I think it's the personnel we're looking at. We don't have the personnel that we used to have to be able to do this job.

"We're seeing guys that are you, know, 60, 65, 70, 75, 80, years old still trying to do the job because they still have it in their heart that this is what they need to do.

"My concern is some of those folks probably shouldn't still be doing this job. They need to retire. There are not many fire chiefs, volunteer fire chiefs, that want to go tell a 35 or 40-year member that it is time that you hang up the helmet."

Yaeger has spent years pushing for legal changes in Albany that would allow communities to compensate their volunteers. But there are folks in Albany, Yaeger indicated, who hang to the notion of volunteer fire companies as partly social clubs, which was fine in Ben Franklin's day and in subsequent decades, but doesn't work in the 21st century.

This is a crisis the state and the county have seen coming for decades. There was a 1987 study that warned of a shortage of volunteers and in 2000 the county produced a report outlining the challenges facing volunteer companies. But in neither case were solutions proposed.

"Society, economics, everything is against us," Yaeger said. "It's just a way different world than it was 20 years ago. I mean, we're seeing it now with the level of apathy in chiefs meetings. You've got chiefs that are into their second or third term and they're burned out. They don't want to do it anymore. But nobody else is stepping up to fill that position so they're fulfilling positions that they really don't want but they have to do it."

Yaeger said he doesn't have the answer but indicated he favors paying firefighters on a per-call basis, and also perhaps compensating them for training. 

The only thing stopping such reform is state law and there seems little willingness in Albany to make such a change.

A couple of years, the state gave volunteers a $250 annual tax credit. In Maryland, Yaeger noted, volunteers get a $3,500 a year tax credit.

"The fact that it costs them a significant amount of money to be a volunteer firefighter isn't right," Yaeger said. "And right now the best of the state and give us is $250. The tax credit isn't working."

Being a firefighter is a skilled job and firefighting, like all skilled jobs, there are fewer and fewer young people eager to pursue those kinds of skills. On top of that, rural schools are graduating half as many potential recruits as they were 20 years ago.

"My concern is, we're an aging population, we're definitely a declining population, and we're an overtaxed state," Yaeger said. "So, there are three things that I'm looking at and saying 'OK. How will we fix this?' Because as soon as we offer anything up it means it's going to cost money and everybody goes 'wait a minute we don't have any money.' "

Compensation, however, seems to be the key to fixing the problem.

"I mean, I'm sure nobody here is willing to sign up to give their life for free, go to all the training that they have to do and then say you're not going to get compensated, there's no health plan, there's no retirement, there is no benefit," Yaeger said. "As a matter of fact, it's going to cost you money."

Deputy coordinator Bill Schutt said being a volunteer firefighter is unlike just about any other kind of volunteer activity in a small community.

"As a volunteer firefighter, it's not on a schedule," Schutt said. "It's not going into a Kiwanis lunch. It's not volunteering once a month. It's some scheduled stuff but it's three o'clock in the morning when the alarm goes off, you got to get up and go even though you go to work in a couple of hours. That only appeals to an odd group of people and there's not many of them."

Some might think that the answer is a full-time paid staff for the entire county, but at $100,000 per firefighter, Genesee County just doesn't have the call volume to warrant the expense.  

It wasn't that long ago that volunteer fire companies were the center of a local community's activities -- Stafford had its carnival, Elba the Onion Festival, East Pembroke the mud races. Those have all disappeared and frequently now, multiple companies are being dispatched to calls that used to take only one fire company just so there will be enough manpower to handle even a minor emergency.

"I know the dispatcher has got to be sitting there with their fingers crossed inside the dispatch center hoping somebody is going to respond," Yaeger said.

June 30, 2019 - 4:18pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in emergency management, batavia, news.

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While Jim Bouton may be retiring from his job with the county as a fire coordinator, his nearly 50 years of service to Genesee County will continue.

Bouton said he will remain with the Town of Batavia Fire Department as a volunteer deputy fire chief.

Bouton, a retired corrections officer, started as a volunteer firefighter in 1972 in Alexander. He was chief by 1983. He took his first job as a fire inspector with the county in 1996. In 2004, he was hired in the Office of Emergency Management as a fire coordinator and training technician.

The thing he will miss the most, he said, is being with the people who became his friends over the course of his career.

"I liked working with a mass group of great folks out there," Bouton said. "I made a lot of friends, a lot of new friends. It was a wonderful experience. I wouldn’t give it up for anything."

After 47 years in the fire service, Bouton said volunteering with a local fire company is definitely a career path he would recommend for young people.

"It might open doors you didn’t think might be there for a career down the road, whether it’s maybe becoming a paid firefighter or a lot of other opportunities that happen because of the association of friends and group of friends you’re going to meet, some door may open," Bouton said.

Top photo: Tim Yaeger, emergency management coordinator, presents Bouton with his helmet and a commemorative helmet stand. Gary Patnode and Diane Bouton are on each side.

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Coordinators with the Office of Emergency Management: Gary Patnode, Chuck Dodson, Bill Schutt, Jim Bouton, Tim Yaeger, Don Roblee (retired), and Sean Downing.

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City firefighters presented Jim Bouton with a plaque to congratulate him on his retirement. Pictured: Dwane Weathell, Marty Hinz, Jim Bouton, Christine Marinaccio, and Mark Holly.

April 21, 2018 - 4:31pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in Fire Training Center, emergency management, news.

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Nearly 100 firefighters and other emergency responders were at the Fire Training Center today to participate in four different classes to help them be better prepared for accident and fire responses.

Gary Hearn, regional emergency manager for Amtrak (bottom photo), taught a class on train passenger emergency response procedures.

There was advanced instruction for emergency medical technicians taking place in another classroom.

In still another classroom, the first day of two days of training sponsored by Tompkins Insurance on emergency vehicle operations.

And out in the back of the training center, the Firefighter II class spent eight hours learning about and practicing accident victim extrication.

"There can be severe damage, so they need to learn as many tricks as possible to get these folks out as quickly as possible," said Jim Bouton, deputy emergency coordinator.

The training center is often a busy place, Bouton said, but today was a little extra busy.

"Quite often the building is full but we’re out here on a back road and nobody sees us," Bouton said. "Sometimes, though we have a tremendous number of programs going on. Today we just happened to have every single classroom and training area filled."

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