New leaders at Emergency Management Office ready to face myriad of challenges

Photos by Tom Rivers: Scott Buffin, left, is the county’s new deputy emergency management coordinator, taking over for the position from Justin Niederhofer, who has been promoted to emergency management director. They are shown at the emergency management office at 14064 West Countyhouse Rd.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 25 February 2023 at 1:18 pm

ALBION – The Orleans County Emergency Management Office has a new director and deputy director to help the county prepare and respond to disasters and other emergencies.

Justin Niederhofer, the former deputy, took over as director on Nov. 17, succeeding the retiring Dale Banker.

Scott Buffin started on Jan. 23 as the new deputy director.

Niederhofer, 42, started as deputy director on April 15, 2020, in the early throes of the Covid-19 pandemic. He managed the delivery of sanitizer, masks and other PPE to municipalities and frontline workers. He also teamed with the Health Department in setting up and running testing and vaccine sites. He and Banker also helped a task force facilitate discussions on local EMS services.

Justin Niederhofer, in red turnout gear, pulls a basketball backboard and hoop from a garage so firefighters could get water in the upper part of the structure on Goodrich Street in Albion. This fire was on Jan. 10, 2022. Niederhofer served as Carlton fire chief from 2019 and 2021 and often responded to calls throughout the county when he was the deputy emergency management coordinator.

Niederhofer is a 20-year veteran of the Air Force. He was working for the U.S. Department of Defense, leading a team of 10 in overseeing manufacturers with Defense contracts when he took the job with the county about three years ago.

“I want to make the community a better and safer place,” he said.

Niederhofer served as Carlton fire chief in 2019 and 2020 and remains an active responder.

Buffin, 42, is a former Lyndonville fire chief who most recently was working with Mercy Flight in Batavia as a paramedic supervisor. Buffin has been a volunteer firefighter since 19.

Both agree that a declining number of active volunteer firefighters is becoming a critical issue. Buffin sought out becoming a volunteer firefighter and a basic EMT soon after high school. He remembered when a firefighter addressed his Boy Scout troop and that message of service to the community stuck with him.

He urges people to try volunteering with their fire department, even if it’s in an administrative role and they don’t want to go to fire scenes or car accidents.

“There is no magic bullet to recruit and retain these volunteers,” Buffin said.

Scott Buffin, right, and fire investigator Cole Hardenbrook head to the scene of a mobile home on fire on Allis Road on Feb. 14. The county has a team of five fire investigators.

There are currently about 300 active firefighters in the county. That may only be about a third of number from even a generation ago. Fire departments increasing are relying on neighboring departments for mutual aid to battle fires.

Niederhofer said he is encouraged by state legislation that would provide some tax incentives for volunteer firefighters. But he knows that ultimately people are feeling time- and money-crunched and don’t feel they can make a big commitment as a volunteer firefighter.

He asks people to keep an open mind, even if they don’t come from a firefighting family, to see how they could contribute to their local fire department.

“There is a job for everyone,” he said. “It could be administrative or providing support on the ground.”

The emergency management office was a big part of the task force looking at EMS services locally. The group of local officials, fire chiefs and ambulance service providers in the county met several times in 2022 as part of an EMS Task Force.

The volunteer ambulances are now all gone in the county, following the dissolution of the Kendall Fire Department Ambulance on Dec. 31, 2022. COVA also ended in Albion with Mercy Flight now running those ambulances.

Monroe Ambulance will begin service as the primary ambulance provider on April 16 in central Orleans County. Monroe is committing to keeping two ambulances in central and eastern Orleans.

Mercy Flight also is intending to keep one ambulance in Albion 24-7 and a second from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. during a transition year. The seven towns in central and eastern Orleans are expected to discuss a longer-term contract later this year for ambulance services.

Niederhofer said he expects there will be a task force in the near future about the shrinking pool of available firefighters. He doesn’t want to wait until it’s an absolute crisis before looking at solutions to ensure there are enough responders in the community.

Scott Buffin, left, and Justin Niederhofer both have many years of service as local first responders. In back is a fire training tower at left and the former civil defense center which is the emergency management office.

The emergency management office also oversees a team of fire investigators, facilitates training classes for firefighters, and works with fire departments to best utilize equipment and specialized teams, including a rope rescue team for responses in quarries, ravines along the Oak Orchard River and local creeks, and steep embankments at state parks.

The office also helps manage the emergency communications system and recently added the new responsibility of cybersecurity for assisting municipalities that could be vulnerable to cyber-attacks. The office will help the municipalities with computer security as part of continuum of operation plans.

“There is never anything that comes off of our plant,” Niederhofer said. “More gets added.”

The county also is looking to upgrade the emergency management office, which is in a bunker-style civil defense center built in 1962. That building on West Countyhouse Road has the backup dispatch for the county in case the 911 consoles are out of commission at the public safety building.

Niederhofer and Buffin also need to be ready to respond to any disaster or emergency. In 2017 and 2019, for example, the high Lake Ontario levels was a long state of emergency and the emergency management office worked to secure sandbags, Agua-Dams and fortified breakwalls for property owners.

The Covid pandemic has been another long response. The EMO continues to secure Covid test kits and distribute them to municipalities.

“Covid is still here,” Niederhofer said. “We’re still dealing with it, but the impacts aren’t as severe.”

Other emergencies are short-term and could include helping to secure housing for residents whose homes were damaged in a fire. The EMO will reach out to the Red Cross for assistance.

The emergency management office also will team with the local Department of Health and Red Cross in setting up emergency shelters if there are extended power outages, such as during the blizzard near Christmas.