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Firefighter tuition assistance program underused, FASNY official says

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LOWVILLE — A statewide program that will cover most or all community college tuition for volunteer firefighters is being underused in the north country, according to a local Firemen’s Association of the State of New York official.

“Nobody is taking advantage of it, and it’s sad,” said Dale F. Barker, Edwards, assistant volunteer programs coordinator at the state association.

Mr. Barker, who works as director of emergency preparedness at Lewis County General Hospital, said a nurse here completed her training with help from FASNY’s college tuition reimbursement program, but few others in the tri-county area have used the program, now in its third year.

The Higher Education Learning Plan, funded through a $4.2 million federal grant received by FASNY in 2011, allows volunteer firefighters to have 75 to 100 percent of their tuition paid, based on their grades. The program has no restrictions on course selection.

The application deadline for the fall semester has been extended through next Friday, so current students still have time to apply.

Applicants are required to serve on a volunteer fire squad in the state for the two years they attend a community college, along with the next four years, Mr. Barker said.

“They’re giving a total of six years back to the community,” he said.

Last fall, 205 people applied for the program, and 187 were accepted as qualified, Mr. Barker said.

However, those were mostly from elsewhere in the state, he said.

Mr. Barker said the program, intended to help recruit more firefighters, would be useful not only for traditional college-age students but also for older volunteers who wish to further their education.

“It’s funding that’s available, but not enough people are taking advantage of it,” he said.

The number of volunteers across the state was 120,000 to 130,000 a decade ago, but that number had dropped to 80,000 a few years ago, Mr. Barker said.

That was at least partly attributable to an increase in time commitment and training requirements for firefighters, he said.

FASNY’s hope is that a concerted recruitment effort, using the federal funding, will “bring bodies back into fire service,” Mr. Barker said, noting that membership has increased by 4 percent since the funding came through.

Officials also are looking for other incentives that can be offered to firefighters to keep them involved in the volunteer service, he said.

Anyone seeking more information on the tuition assistance program or other FASNY initiatives can email Mr. Barker at dbarker@fasny.com or visit the organization’s web site at www.fasny.com.

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