TOWN OF ONONDAGA, N.Y. (WSYR-TV)– The Town of Onondaga is putting its money where its mouth is after announcing a new Volunteer Shortage Extinguisher Grant Program Tuesday night to fund a one-year recruitment and retention effort for all of the town’s fire districts. 

This comes a week after the Town Board announced its plans to dissolve the Sentinel Height’s fire district due to low staffing levels and call volumes. 

Each of the remaining seven fire districts will be asked to present the board with a recruitment and retention plan by December 1, 2022. Once approved, the Town will grant each district 10% of their annual budget in leftover American Rescue Plan dollars. That can range from $20,000 upwards to $50,000 per fire district. 

Town Board Supervisor John Mahar said the plans will be evaluated quarterly and then after the first year, the program will be reassessed. 

This new program was announced Tuesday night during a workshop with the Town’s fire chiefs and presidents to discuss their recent efforts to recruit and retain volunteers. 

Fire chiefs consistently talked about the increased training hours, tests, and exams New York State now requires volunteer firefighters to complete as a major obstacle for many interested in getting involved. 

“Once we get somebody in the door it’s going to be probably two years before that person is a viable person in our department so it’s tough,”

Richard Nemier, Nedrow Fire Chief

It also costs the department a lot of money when someone decides to join but then doesn’t stick with it. The equipment and gear needed for one firefighter cost nearly $10,000. 

“And to invest that kind of money and then have that person not stay, it’s a lot of money to put out,” Nemier said.

To put the shortage in perspective, when Chief Nemier started volunteering at the Nedrow Fire Department in 1990 there were roughly 40-50 active members. Today there are only 17 active members, but it’s not just an issue in the Town of Onondaga. According to the Fire Association for the State of New York, there were approximately 120,000 volunteer firefighters across the state in the early 2000s. Today that number sits somewhere between 75,000-80,000.

Some in attendance Tuesday night also discussed the eventual need for paid positions or financial incentives like a popular pay-per-call program many neighboring states already use. Other ideas included partnering with local schools and BOCES to get students started on the training courses before they even graduate high school.