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Guest Column: State Sen. Tom O'Mara
ALBANY, April 11 -- Former President Ronald Reagan said it this way: “The work of volunteer groups throughout our country represents the very heart and soul of America.”
In his January 1989 inaugural address, former President George H.W. Bush, in one of the more memorable phrases in modern presidential history, described the nation’s network of volunteer community groups as “a thousand points of light.”
Recalling the words of these former American leaders serves a couple of purposes. First, they still stand to highlight this week’s observance of National Volunteer Week. But most importantly, they remain fitting tributes to the thousands of community volunteers across the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions making such a difference in thousands of lives. From the American Red Cross to Habitat for Humanity to RSVP, our volunteers make all the difference. They can’t be thanked enough.
But along with the opportunity this week offers to express our collective gratitude, it’s also a chance to stay aware of some troubled waters. That was the idea behind open houses being held at a number of local volunteer firehouses across the area on the weekend of April 9-10. These events were the culmination of a “Recruit NY” effort coordinated since the beginning of the year by the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY), the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, the state Association of Fire Districts, and others as a way to raise awareness of the ongoing need for emergency services volunteers.
The point to remember is that local volunteer fire departments, according to statistics, account for 73% of all fire departments in America. New York state government has its hands full for the foreseeable future confronting a long list of economic and fiscal challenges. But through it all, we still have to keep an eye on the rest of New York’s to-do list, and that includes the ability of local volunteer fire companies and ambulance services to recruit and retain volunteers.
It’s been a well-documented concern over the past decade. Organizations like FASNY and the state Association of Towns have done their best to heighten public awareness. According to FASNY, the number of volunteer firefighters statewide has declined from 140,000 in the early 1990s to approximately 110,000 today. Volunteer emergency medical technicians (EMTs) experienced a decline from more than 50,000 to 35,000 during the same period. Several years ago the Association of Towns issued an alarming report, “Volunteer Emergency Services: A System in Crisis,” which pegged the cost to local taxpayers statewide at more than $7 billion annually to replace volunteers with paid fire and ambulance services.
There are a host of factors outside the sphere of government influence that are causing the ranks of volunteers to be stretched so thin. But the decline has become especially troubling among emergency services volunteers, and it deserves all of the attention it can get. There are actions that government has and should continue to take to provide incentives that just might help reverse the decline. I’ve sponsored legislation in the past identifying some that could work. To try to help, New York State has already established tax breaks, tuition assistance, and other incentives.
But more needs to be done. We just need to stay focused on efforts, including campaigns like Recruit NY, that recognize and trumpet the critical position emergency services volunteers hold in our communities.
President Reagan may have said it best of all when he said that government “can never take the place of volunteers.”
Photo in text: State Senator Tom O'Mara
Schuyler County Officials
Top row (from left): Dennis Fagan, Thomas Gifford, Doris Karius, Glenn Larison
Bottom row: Michael A. Yuhasz, Barbara Halpin, Phil Barnes, Stewart Field
Dennis Fagan, Tyrone 607-292-3687
Michael A. Yuhasz, 535-4967
Doris L. Karius, 546-5544
Barbara Halpin, 594-3683
Glenn R. Larison, 594-3385
Thomas M. Gifford, 535-9517
Phil Barnes, Watkins Glen 481-0482
Stewart Field, Watkins Glen 535-2335
County Clerk: Linda Compton, 535-8133
Sheriff: William Yessman, 535-8222
Undersheriff: Breck Spaulding, 535-8222
County Treasurer: Margaret Starbuck, 535-8181
District Attorney: Joseph Fazzary, 535-8383
State, Federal Officials for Schuyler County
Sen. Charles E. Schumer
United States Senate
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand
United States Senate
State Senator Tom O'Mara -- Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Yates, western Tompkins, Enfield, Ithaca (Town and City), Newfield, Ulysses(Trumansburg)
Room 415, Legislative Office Building
Assemblyman Christopher Friend --
Chemung, Schuyler, Tioga
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869