A Special Report
|Robert K. Sweeney, Chair • Sheldon Silver, Speaker • Summer 2005|
Since becoming Chairman of the Assembly Local Governments Committee, I have made volunteer emergency services a priority. Each year, thousands of New Yorkers generously dedicate their time as volunteer ambulance workers and volunteer firefighters.
In recognition of this important service, on May 10, the Assembly hosted the Second Annual Volunteer Firefighters and Ambulance Workers Day. This is a day that the Assembly has devoted to provide official recognition to thank volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers for all of their dedication and hard work in providing New Yorkers with lifesaving services at times of greatest need, and to advance legislative issues of importance to the emergency services. I consulted with the Firemen’s Association of New York State, The New York State Volunteer Ambulance & Rescue Association, the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs and The Association of Fire Districts of the State of New York in producing the agenda and the priority legislation.
This newsletter highlights various legislation passed by the Assembly during the 2005 legislative session that are intended to improve volunteer safety and effectiveness, and help in recruitment and retention.
Volunteer Ambulance Workers and Volunteer Firefighters Benefit Increase
In many areas of the State, volunteer ambulance workers and firefighters serve as the first line of defense in times of emergency. The services they provide often put them at risk of bodily harm. They should have the peace of mind provided by the knowledge that their families will be adequately compensated if they are killed in the line of duty. Death benefits for volunteer firefighters have not been adjusted since 1998. Volunteer ambulance benefits are at the same level as those for volunteer firefighters. The benefits in this legislation represent the rise in the consumer price index since the last increase. This legislation has passed both houses and has been signed into law.
Extension of Heart Disease Disability Benefits
In 1977, the Legislature found that volunteer firefighters often suffered injuries or deaths resulting from heart attacks suffered in the line of duty. The Legislature also found that claims of injuries from heart attacks were often subjected to lengthy delays. As a result, the Legislature established specific procedures to expedite the handling of such claims. This legislation extends the provisions relating to disability due to heart disease which were scheduled to expire on June 30, 2005 until June 30, 2010. This legislation has passed both houses and has been signed into law.
Volunteering During a Military Leave
Currently, volunteer firefighters are granted a leave of absence when they enter active duty military service during a time of war. During such periods, these volunteer firefighters are prohibited from performing firefighting duties. Unfortunately, this prevents our dedicated volunteer firefighters from having the opportunity to volunteer during times they get to return home temporarily. This legislation will grant those volunteer firefighters the opportunity to perform firefighting duties during a period of temporary military leave. This legislation has passed both houses and is currently awaiting action by the Governor.
Prohibit Insurance Discrimination Against Property Protected by Volunteer Firefighters
Recently, an insurance company refused renewal of several homeowners’ policies to residents on Long Island solely because the properties were protected by volunteer firefighters. Such actions are an unjustified slight against New York’s dedicated volunteer firefighters who time after time perform first-class work across the State. This legislation would prohibit an insurer from denying fire and homeowner’s insurance coverage solely because a person resides in an area serviced by a volunteer fire department. The vast majority of the areas of upstate New York and Long Island are protected by volunteers. Insurance companies refusing to issue homeowner’s insurance solely because they are protected by volunteer firefighters could have a devastating impact throughout the State. This legislation has passed both houses and is currently awaiting action by the Governor.
Volunteer Ambulance Workers’ Immunity from Liability
Volunteer ambulance workers who render emergency rescue services are immune from liability if such services are rendered without expectation of monetary compensation. However, many volunteer ambulance workers are eligible to receive monetary service awards. These service awards are intended to be an incentive for recruitment and retention. But such service awards could also be deemed to constitute a form of monetary compensation. This legislation would ensure that volunteer ambulance workers participating in a service program would be immune from liability. This legislation has passed both houses and is currently awaiting action by the Governor.
Trauma and Emergency Care Coordination
Trauma is the leading cause of death and disability in the first forty years of life. Emergency medical and trauma care must be properly coordinated between personnel in the hospital and personnel who treat the patient before he or she arrives in the hospital. There also needs to be a statewide system for the transfer of critically ill or injured patients between hospitals. This bill would ensure that the state develops and maintains the guidelines and plans needed for the development and maintenance of emergency medical and trauma care systems, and the expeditious transfer of patients in need of such care to appropriately staffed and equipped facilities. This legislation has passed both houses and is currently awaiting action by the Governor.
Real Property Tax Exemptions for Volunteer Firefighters and Ambulance Workers
Several bills were passed authorizing or expanding real property tax exemptions for volunteer firefighters and volunteer ambulance workers in various localities including:
A.329-A Tonko – Montgomery County: This legislation has passed both houses and is currently awaiting action by the Governor.
A.1683 Gunther – Sullivan County: This legislation has passed both houses and is currently awaiting action by the Governor.
A.2039 Calhoun; Chapter 74 of the Laws of 2005 – Orange County: This legislation has passed both houses and has been signed into law by the Governor.
A.5635-A McEneny – Albany County: This legislation has passed the Assembly, but the Senate has not yet taken action.
A.5745 DiNapoli – Nassau County: This legislation has passed both houses and is currently awaiting action by the Governor.
A.7114-A Aubertine – St. Lawrence County and Jefferson County: This legislation has passed both houses and is currently awaiting action by the Governor.
A.8137-A Christensen – Onondaga County: This legislation has passed both houses and is currently awaiting action by the Governor.
A.8909 Rules (McDonald) – Saratoga County: This legislation has passed both houses and is currently awaiting action by the Governor.
Tax Exemptions for Un-Remarried Spouses of Volunteers Killed in the Line of Duty
This legislation authorizes localities to continue a volunteer firefighter and volunteer ambulance worker tax exemption to the un-remarried spouse of a volunteer firefighter or ambulance worker killed in the line of duty.
The implementation of this legislation will lead to greater retention and recruitment of volunteer firefighters and volunteer ambulance workers. This legislation has passed both houses and is currently awaiting action by the Governor.
Notification to Fire Districts of Tax Certiorari Proceedings
Fire districts are stakeholders in the amount and value of taxable property within their borders. This legislation will provide fire districts with notice of tax certiorari filed on property located within the districts’ boundaries. This legislation has passed the Assembly, but the Senate has not yet taken action.
Long Distance Learning Availability
Since September 11, 2001, the increased responsibilities of firefighters have forced them to perform an increasing number of tasks within a limited amount of time. At a hearing held in March 2004, firefighters frequently cited concerns regarding the availability and proximity of required training and indicated certain training demands are actually a deterrent to recruitment and retention. New technology provides new opportunities for training that can reduce the time burden placed upon firefighters. This legislation requires the State Office of Fire Prevention to make firefighting training available by video or computer to the maximum extent practical. This legislation has passed the Assembly, but the Senate has not yet taken action.
Volunteer Firefighter Defense and Indemnification
Volunteer firefighters generously perform an essential function without compensation; however, the fear of personal financial liability discourages some people from becoming and continuing to serve as volunteer firefighters. Their status as volunteers has led to questions about the ability of public entities to pay for legal costs and any resulting judgments, a process known as defense and indemnification. This legislation requires municipalities and fire districts to provide defense and indemnification for actions taken by the volunteer firefighter, provided that the firefighter meets the municipality’s training standards and the acts did not involve willful negligence or malfeasance. This legislation has passed the Assembly, but the Senate has not yet taken action.
Free Thruway Access for Emergency Vehicles
When responding to an emergency, time is of the essence. In some areas of the State, the Thruway provides the fastest and most direct access to the scene of an emergency. This legislation would require the Thruway Authority to develop a permit process or provide refunds for ambulances and fire trucks responding to an emergency. This legislation has passed the Assembly, but the Senate has not yet taken action.
Fire Hydrant Inspection
Non-working hydrants pose a major hazard to firefighters. In urban areas, the problem of non-working hydrants also exacerbates parking problems. This legislation would require municipalities to inspect fire hydrants to ensure that they are in working order and remove or replace non-working hydrants. In cases where fire districts are responsible for hydrant maintenance, they would be required to conduct the inspections and notify the municipality. This legislation passed the Assembly, but the Senate has not yet taken action.
Absentee Ballots for Fire District Elections
Currently, fire district commissioners must adopt a resolution prior to providing absentee ballots in fire district elections. This legislation would bring the election provisions of fire districts into compliance with the provisions of other local elections by requiring absentee ballots to be available for all fire district elections. In addition, this legislation would streamline the process for the completion and submission of absentee ballots. This legislation passed the Assembly, but the Senate has not yet taken action.
The possibility of offering health insurance to volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers as a recruitment and retention incentive has been suggested as a way to reverse the decline in volunteerism. Last year, the Temporary Task Force on Volunteer Firefighter and Ambulance Recruitment and Retention was created to study issues related to the feasibility of providing volunteer firefighter and volunteer ambulance workers with health insurance as a recruitment incentive. For months, the Task Force was unable to meet. While the Assembly had made its appointments, the other appointing authorities had not. One of these bills (A.7598) would allow the Task Force to begin work once a majority of its members are appointed. The introduction and passage of the bill “encouraged” the remaining appointments to be made and the Task Force began meeting in June.
To ensure the Task Force has enough time to complete its work, the other bill (A.8789) would extend the life of the Task Force for one additional year, until January 1, 2007. This legislation passed the Assembly, but the Senate has not yet taken action.
Instruction in Injury Prevention and Life Safety Education
All schools in New York State are required to provide instruction in fire and arson prevention. This legislation would add injury prevention and life safety education to the required course. This legislation has passed both houses and has been signed into law as Chapter 242 Laws of 2005.
Prohibition for the Privatization of Fire Services
The privatization of fire services by municipalities poses a threat to the lives, safety and property of individuals. Public sector fire services use their resources solely to provide service and protection to the public. Private sector fire services exist to make a profit. Given the profound role fire departments play in protecting the lives and property of all citizens, this legislation prohibits a governmental body from contracting with a for-profit entity for the furnishing of fire protection. This legislation was vetoed by the Governor.
First responders provide an invaluable service in times of emergency and it is absolutely critical that they are provided priority access to wireless communication services in order to ensure that the vital information necessary for responding to an emergency is sent and received in the quickest and most efficient manner. This resolution calls on Congress to examine issues related to providing first responders with priority access to wireless communication services. This resolution was adopted by the Assembly.
Assemblyman Robert K. Sweeney, Chair
Committee on Local Governments • Room 837 LOB • Albany, New York 12248
518.455.5787 • email@example.com
New York State Assembly
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