Any and all options, including a way to compensate members of municipal volunteer fire departments, are on the table as Genesee County leaders tackle the ongoing problem of staffing during emergency situations.
On Monday, the county legislature’s Public Service Committee voted in favor of funding a contract with Municipal Resources Inc., of Plymouth, N.H., to provide consultant services toward developing a comprehensive fire service implementation plan.
The cost, not to exceed $101,675, will be paid by using available funds from the county’s 1 percent sales tax allocation. The full legislature is expected to ratify the proposal.
“Whether it’s a fire, EMS (emergency medical services) issue. motor-vehicle accident or a carbon monoxide alarm, it doesn’t matter what the incident is, we have to have the right number of people available that are able bodied and trained to get to the scene …,” County Emergency Services Coordinator Tim Yaeger said this morning. “They need to respond in the required amount of time, based on national standards, based on what the fire service believes they need to be – and holding their company to that standard and what the public expects. It’s not an easy answer; it’s not an easy fix.”
That’s why county officials are opting to call upon MRI, a company with a track record of helping municipalities in other counties and states find solutions to similar dilemmas.
Yaeger: It's a Nationwide Problem
“This issue is not just Genesee County. This issue is New York State, across the nation,” said Yaeger, who has been working with a task force set up by the Public Service Committee to study the problem. It’s more severe in some spots and less severe in others."
Yaeger said he has been talking to his colleagues across the state in an effort to solve this “crisis without evidence.”
“Unfortunately, we haven’t made much headway to it, and that’s why – maybe it’s too big of a nut to crack statewide. So, let’s look at it in a small segment and just look at Genesee County for now and see where we go,” he said.
While it’s way too early to predict the outcome of the consultant’s work, Yaeger said he supports some type of payment for the “volunteers who spend hundreds and thousands of hours at their fire departments.”
“In New York State, it’s either career or volunteer or a combination department, which really are more career than they are volunteer,” he said. “So, what we’re trying to do is look at ways to compensate volunteers. And that’s what many states and counties have done, even in the Northeast itself, is to compensate the volunteers for their time.”
Thousands of Hours with No Pay
He said volunteers’ tasks are numerous, including preparing for the emergency, administrative work, human relations work, fundraising, training, equipment maintenance and preparedness training.
“That’s thousands of hours that they’re committing to before the alarm even goes off,” he said. “And then when there is an alarm, taking training courses. So, those two things in combination with their administrative duties required to run a fire department. It would nice to see those men and women be compensated at some level. It is something that we’re looking at right now.
“It’s hard to find people and get paid, and now we’re expecting these folks to be available 24/7, 365 and do the job for free. It’s almost impossible.”
Yaeger said the task force was unsuccessful in its search for grant funding and turned to the legislature to address a situation that was first studied at the county level 20 years ago.
“This has been a problem for decades and I think they’ve finally realized now that it has gotten so severe that we have to take some more aggressive action to look for a solution,” he said.
Stein: We Need to be Prepared
County Legislature Chair Rochelle Stein said she is looking forward to finding out “exactly what we have in capacity in Genesee County and then, perhaps, find a path toward being able to fulfill the mission and responsibility of first responders in our county.”
“This takes in every town fire department, fire districts and we also are having the entire conversation shared with those departments and our emergency management staff, which will include the City of Batavia,” she said. “This is important to us because we are one tragedy away from something that is really horrific. We want to be able to stop that from happening.”
Yaeger agreed that the City of Batavia FD, which features a full-time paid staff, must be involved in the discussion.
“Anybody that provides fire and EMS services, they have to be involved in this,” he said. “The city is a key component to this conversation.”
He said the county and task force will begin “data mining” – providing pertinent information for MRI, such as the current number of firefighters, their qualifications, their age and their availability.
“Staffing is the number one issue that is causing our problem. We have to look at where we are today with staffing and then, how do we fix that,” he said, noting that some areas of the county are well protected while others “are really struggling.”
Have to Consider the Costs
Yaeger said that all are aware that potential costs to the taxpayers have to be considered.
“We have to as a group and as a community step in and find some solutions that are going to work and meet everybody’s need while maintaining that caution of expense,” he offered. “That’s what everybody wants to know. What’s it going to cost? We realize that, the committee realizes that and the consulting firm does as well.”
In a related matter, the PSC voted to accept a hazardous materials emergency preparedness grant for $5,172 from the United States Department of Transportation through the New York Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.
The grant program focuses on efforts that result in the prevention of serious hazmat transportation related incidents, principally those of high consequences to residents and the environment.
Previously: Task force seeks outside help to solve emergency services 'crisis without evidence'