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Cuomo signs bill to study volunteer fire department needs

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) that establishes a task force to study ways to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters.

A number of communities — Shelter Island among them — have concerns as older members age out of more active duty and younger residents don’t volunteer or can’t because of responsibilities to jobs and family.

“Volunteer firefighters serve an important function as first responders and have been on the front lines of defense as the battle with COVID-19 rages on,” Mr. Thiele said in his announcement about the task force. “Unfortunately, volunteer fire districts/departments have been challenged by the steady decline in the number of individuals willing to join the volunteer fire service and the current public health crisis has further exacerbated the need to attract the next generation of volunteer firefighters across New York.”

Mr. Thiele is chairman of the Assembly Local Governments Committee and joined with State Senator James Gaughran (D-Huntington), chairman of the Senate’s Local Governments Committee, to sponsor the legislation aimed at creating the task force.

“Now, more than ever, we must ensure that every effort is being made to strengthen our volunteer fire service by establishing better practices and new techniques to encourage new members to join,” Mr. Thiele said, commending Gov. Cuomo for signing the bill.

A few years ago, then chief and now First Assistant Chief Anthony Reiter told a forum on affordable housing that he worried there would come a day in the not so distant future when Shelter Island might have to go to a paid fire department.

That might not upset wealthier residents, but would mean higher taxes for everyone and could price some residents out of continuing to live on the Island.

Among concerns are young people who don’t necessarily work on the Island, so they aren’t available to respond to calls during work hours. Then there’s the demands of training that often require firefighters to travel off-Island in the evenings or on weekends.

In days long past, training was done on the job and handled locally. But more sophisticated equipment and techniques mean more time spent in training.

This new law, the sponsors said, will bring together a group of key decision makers from relevant state agencies, firefighter associations and policy makers to determine necessary solutions to fortify the ranks of the volunteer firefighters across New York.