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Tuition aid restored for fire volunteers, EMS workers in Nassau County

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Nassau County’s 19 legislators voted unanimously on Nov. 19 to allocate funding to make up for a lost Federal Emergency Management Agency grant that provides college scholarships for volunteer firefighters and emergency medical services workers countywide.

The county’s Office of Emergency Management normally administers the FEMA funding, known as the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Re-sponse, or SAFER, grant. The SAFER program is intended to encourage recruitment of new fire volunteers.

Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton, a Democrat from Glen Cove, co-sponsored the bill to restore the SAFER funding with Legislator Siela Bynoe, a Democrat from Westbury. DeRiggi-Whitton said she first heard that the funding had been lost from constituents.

According to Danny Schrafel, communications director for the Legislature’s Democratic caucus, the county has set aside $1.2 million for the tuition assistance program in 2018 and 2019.

At press time, it was not entirely clear why FEMA denied the funding. The reason, DeRiggi-Whitton said, was a lack of communication between federal and county officials.

The legislation states that it is “crucial that the county intervene to make up the deficit in the SAFER tuition assistance program” that resulted from FEMA’s denial.

The funding provides firefighters with scholarships good for one to 80 credits at Nassau Community College, provided that they have matriculated and maintain at least a 2.0 average, according to a 2016 OEM report. There are now 173 students in the program.

Brian Nolan, a former Locust Valley Fire Department chief, said he was pleased to hear that the county had voted to provide the SAFER funding. “It’s very hard, with the demands of work and school, for us to maintain recruits and members in the Fire Department,” Nolan said. “I’m for anything that will attract members. This could be a tool that will help us.”

“I know how hard it is for kids and families,” DeRiggi-Whitton said. “I realize how important it is for them to not worry about the funding.”

The legislation notes the value of volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers, and the sacrifices they make to ensure that their community is safe.

Mary Grace Syrett, of East Norwich, is a lieutenant in the East Norwich Fire Department Juniors, which offers young people an opportunity to learn about firefighting and emergency services. She joined the juniors when she was in sixth grade. Now 16 and a junior at Oyster Bay High School, she is considering where to attend college. Syrett said she had heard about the SAFER program at the Fire Department.

“I think it’s really good, because college is expensive,” she said, adding that she was considering attending NCC after high school. She would also like to be a volunteer EMT in the ENFD. “Between school, work and the fire service, it would be tough to do so, because being a part of the fire service is a big commitment,” Syrett said. “You have to go to all of the trainings and make a certain amount of calls a year.”

SAFER tuition assistance, she said, would help make it all possible.

Legislator Josh Lafazan, an independent from Woodbury and a former volunteer firefighter, was angry, he said, to learn that the FEMA SAFER grant had been lost. “To me, there are certain groups in our society who should be left alone from politics,” Lafazan said. “When the alarm goes off, a volunteer fireman doesn’t ask if it’s a Democrat or Republican household.”

Tuition assistance, he added, “is the least we can do to say thank you for their heroism on a daily basis.”

DeRiggi-Whitton said that ensuring SAFER assistance is in place for the county’s fire volunteers would alleviate some of the stress that they and their families live with. “It’s one less thing that everyone has to worry about,” she said. “It’s the responsible thing to do.”