Even a shortage of one firefighter can make a difference at a fire scene, auto accident or medical emergency.
If that firefighter is tied up performing another public service – jury duty – he or she can’t be available to help.
And with many volunteer fire departments around the state finding themselves extremely shorthanded these days, a civic duty that others can perform shouldn’t keep these volunteers from serving us.
So state lawmakers should consider a bill (A10912) sponsored by Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara that would allow active-duty volunteer firefighters to apply for an exemption from jury duty.
Active-duty professional firefighters and police are already exempt. This would place these vital emergency volunteer responders in the same category.
Jury duty can take anywhere from a few hours to a week or more, and is often held during the work day, when it’s even more difficult to get volunteers to respond.
Volunteer firefighters are vital to public safety, as about 70% of all the fire and emergency response nationwide is done by volunteers. By not having to pay for professional firefighters, state taxpayers save about $5 billion a year.
The legislation would complement legislation signed last month by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that seeks to address the state’s shortage of volunteer firefighters.
New York has roughly 1,800 volunteer fire departments. Many have been seeing a decline not only in new volunteers, but in retention of existing firefighters.
The bill signed by Cuomo on Nov. 11 (A9779/S7589) sets up a New York State Recruitment and Retention Task Force to determine the causes of the shortage and propose ways to address it.
Among its tasks will be finding time for training and ways to make training more efficient, making better use of BOCES and community colleges, examining tax benefits for volunteer firefighter service, and looking at ways to recruit from underserved and at-risk populations.
With the jury duty bill, the idea is not to go back to the old days of offering exemptions to jury duty for every essential profession in the state. That broad policy, abandoned in the mid-1990s, resulted in courts having difficulty getting enough people to serve on juries.
This legislation is different, in that it specifically addresses a critical public safety issue. And even this single exemption wouldn’t be automatic; volunteer firefighters would have to choose to apply for the exemption. On top of that, it could serve as a recruitment incentive.
Volunteer fire companies have enough trouble getting enough personnel to emergency situations as it is these days.
Jury duty should not be an impediment to their duty to protect the public.