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Schumer seeks funds for firefighter college aid grants

Senator Charles Schumer, on Monday, March 31, 2014

Senator Charles Schumer, on Monday, March 31, 2014 in Wantagh, warns that federal funds that provide volunteer firefighters with tuition assistance is running out. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Sen. Charles Schumer Monday pushed for renewal of an expiring federal college tuition aid grant that he said has brought in more than 1,200 new volunteer firefighters on Long Island in the past three years.

"Communities across Long Island face a serious shortage of volunteer firefighters, which is why we must keep an immensely successful recruitment program -- the tuition assistance program for firefighters -- from running dry," Schumer said during a news conference at Wantagh Fire Station No. 2 in Levittown.

Federal Emergency Management Agency grants for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program -- $2.1 million for Nassau and $2.3 million for Suffolk -- end Oct. 1.

"Young men and women who didn't have the means to go to college or thought a college education was not for them are now graduating," Schumer said of the grants' impact.

In a letter to Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, Schumer backed grants for $1.5 million for Nassau's 71 volunteer fire departments with 8,970 members, and $2.8 million for Suffolk's 109 departments with 9,329 members.

The grants are for two years.

Donald Caetano, a FEMA spokesman in Manhattan, said competition for the grants is high.

"Nationally, the SAFER grant program has been very successful and is highly competitive, as many organizations apply for them," he said. "We . . . select the most qualified applicants."

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano praised the program, saying that more than 800 volunteers have entered the program.

"Unfortunately, funding has run out and Nassau County formed a temporary solution for the 2013-2014 academic year in which the county and the college provided a bridge to benefit these students and the county's volunteer fire departments and EMS providers," Mangano said at the news conference. "We gather today urging FEMA to renew its commitment to funding this program."

James O'Brien, 19, a volunteer with the East Meadow Fire Department, said the program had been a "tremendous" help to him, and he is almost ready to graduate from Nassau Community College.

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