Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, legislators and members of the firefighting community gathered Monday morning to announce legislation that will restore higher education funding for volunteer firefighters.
“Nothing is more important to all of us than the safety of Nassau County’s residents,” said Curran, who signed the bill into law. “Our volunteer fire service members are saving lives on the front lines every day.”
The county has been benefiting from the $1.6 million Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant for several years, Curran said. The grant provided tuition assistance for members of the volunteer fire service to attend Nassau Community College. On Nov. 7, the county was informed that it would not receive funding from the grant for the remainder of the 2018 semester or for the entire 2019 academic year.
“It has helped dozens, scores, of firefighters help continue their education since 2014,” Curran said.
The program currently benefits 173 students, who are eligible to receive the full value of a NCC semester. The size of the SAFER grants varies, depending on what other scholarships and aid applicants receive.
It is not clear why the federal funding was not appropriated, Curran said. Her administration has contacted United States representatives on the matter.
County Legislators Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury) and Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove) spearheaded legislation, which passed unanimously with bipartisan support, to cover the costs for the remainder of this year and next year.
“The signing of this bill will ensure that the men and women who are selflessly and generously giving up themselves have an opportunity to have a bright future,” Bynoe said.
“This is a win-win situation,” Bynoe said. “Nassau Community College is also desperately in need of this tuition money, so this is an opportunity to make sure NCC is fully funded.”
The program also serves as an incentive for young adults to serve the community, Bynoe said. Recruitment and retention of volunteer fire service members has been challenging, Curran said.
“This action encourages recruitment and it keeps our firefighters with us,” Curran said.
“Not just here in Nassau County but throughout the state and the country there’s a recruiting and retention problem with volunteer firefighters,” Chief Fire Marshal Scott Tusa said. “Today’s lifestyle has a lot to do with the availability of time to meet the demands of the volunteer fire service.
“Legislation of this type is vital and extremely important for our fire departments in Nassau county.”
“Firefighting is sometimes a young persons’ game,” Legislator Steve Rhoads (R-Wantagh) said. “The reality is that our departments rely on new members coming in.
“This has been a valuable tool for our volunteer ambulance and fire fighter departments to attract and retain members,” Rhoads, who joined the Wantagh Volunteer Fire Department in 1992, said.
“It’s a great opportunity for all the young volunteers pursuing an education at NCC,” said Vito Santoli, a 19-year-old member of the Mineola Volunteer Fire Department and recipient of the tuition assistance,. Santoli is enrolled at NCC and studying for a degree in liberal arts.