Opinion 96 - 17


This opinion represents the views of the Office of the State Comptroller at the time it was rendered. The opinion may no longer represent those views if, among other things, there have been subsequent court cases or statutory amendments that bear on the issues discussed in the opinion.

FIRE DISTRICTS -- Appropriations and Expenditures (payment of the expenses of volunteer firefighters attending emergency medical service conference); (reimbursement of volunteer firefighters for tuition expenses incurred in completing certain college courses)

VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTERS -- Reimbursement for Expenses (expenses for attendance at conferences); (for tuition expenses incurred in completing certain college courses)

GENERAL MUNICIPAL LAW, §72-g: A fire district may pay the expenses of volunteer firefighters attending an emergency medical services conference if the board of fire commissioners, based on a review of the program, determines that it is significantly devoted to the technical training of the firefighters who would attend. A fire district may also reimburse volunteer firefighters for tuition expenses incurred for completing college courses, such as a course leading to a degree in fire science, if the board of fire commissioners determines that the course provides, to a significant extent, technical training relevant to the duties of the firefighters who would attend.

We have been asked two questions concerning the applicability of General Municipal Law, §72-g: (1) may a fire district, pursuant to General Municipal Law, §72-g, pay the expenses of volunteer firefighters who attend an emergency medical services "conference", presented by a State agency, which includes workshops and lectures, if the board of commissioners determines it to be a "bonafide training school"; (2) may a fire district, pursuant to section 72-g, provide a tuition reimbursement plan for volunteer firefighters who successfully complete college courses leading to a degree in fire science?

General Municipal Law, §72-g provides that the chief officer of the fire department of any municipal corporation or fire district, subject to any rules or regulations governing the department, may authorize the volunteer members of the department to attend "training schools and courses of instruction" for firefighters. If the school or course is outside the county in which the municipal corporation or fire district is located, the authorization to attend is subject to the prior approval of the governing board of the municipal corporation or fire district. Section 72-g further provides that the governing board may provide, by resolution, for the payment of all actual and necessary registration fees not in excess of ten dollars, all actual and necessary travel, meal and lodging expenses and all necessary tuition fees incurred by the firefighter in attending the school or course. It has been stated that the purpose of section 72-g is to permit volunteer firefighters "to utilize whatever technical training is available in order to improve fire protection in New York State" (Governor Rockefeller's Message on Approval of L 1960, ch 100, amending General Municipal Law, §72-g to permit reimbursement for out-of-state training, McKinney's Session Laws of 1960, p 1997).

In order to qualify as a "training school" or "course of instruction" under section 72-g, we have expressed the opinion that, consistent with the purpose of section 72-g, a considerable portion of the program of a conference or convention must be devoted to technical training for the firefighters such as lectures and instruction (1980 Opns St Comp No. 80-237, p 62). The question of whether the program of any particular conference or convention is, to a significant extent, devoted to technical training of firefighters is a question of fact which, in the first instance, should be determined by the governing board of the fire district based on a critical review of the substance of the program (20 Opns St Comp, 1964, p 177). The board should also determine that the conference has training value for the particular firefighters attending (24 Opns St Comp, 1968, p 769). Accordingly, in this instance, if the board, based on a review of the workshops and lectures scheduled in the program of the emergency medical services conference, determines that the program is significantly devoted to technical training of the firefighters attending, it may pay the firefighters' expenses in accordance with General Municipal Law, §72-g.

Similarly, in relation to the payment of college tuition, we believe that if the governing board of a fire district determines that a college course provides, to a significant extent, technical training relevant to the duties of the firefighters completing the course, the board may reimburse volunteer firefighters for the expenses of such a course. In 26 Opns St Comp, 1970, p 128, we expressed the opinion that a college course leading to a degree in fire science is a "course of instruction" within the meaning of section 72-g. Thus, we concluded that a fire district, in accordance with the provisions of section 72-g, could determine to reimburse its volunteer firefighters for expenses in connection with taking and satisfactorily completing college courses leading to a degree in fire science. This still represents the views of this Office.

Therefore, in accordance with General Municipal Law, §72-g, a fire district may pay the expenses of volunteer firefighters attending an emergency medical services conference if the board of fire commissioners, based on a review of the program, determines that it is significantly devoted to the technical training of the firefighters who would attend. A fire district also may reimburse volunteer firefighters, in accordance with section 72-g, for tuition expenses incurred for completing college courses, such as a course leading to a degree in fire science, if the board of commissioners determines that the course provides, to a significant extent, technical training relevant to the duties of the firefighters who would attend.

August 13, 1996
Joseph F. Frank, Esq., General Counsel
Board of Fire Commissioners, Jericho Fire District
Albert J. Mac Brien, Secretary
Board of Fire Commissioners, Roosevelt Fire District