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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – It’s an issue that firefighter credit unions have long grappled with: how to preserve their “special” common bond amidst the growth of community charters while also facing competitive forces. “Sure, it’s a struggle and a problem every firefighter credit union has dealt with in trying to expand their member base while at the same time retaining their identity,” explained Grant Sheehan, president of Miami Firefighters FCU in Florida and a speaker/coordinator of the 2nd annual Firefighter Credit Union Conference. The conference, held in Scottsdale, Ariz., drew nearly 100 CEOs and directors of firefighter CUs, and a prime issue was FOM growth and whether to open up the member base to volunteer firefighters and extended families. “We think firefighters are a unique profession and while we are trying to attract more family members, in our market we felt we would not dilute the membership,” said Sheehan. But that has not meant the Florida-based CU has not adopted aggressive marketing tactics to attract extended family members as well as firefighters in small communities where there is no CU link. “We take in the in-laws and I suppose it does dilute the common bond but it still is a family relationship with a firefighter,” said Sheehan noting also the loss of members to community charters which have grown rapidly in south Florida. “They are our competition,” he maintains. But in Syracuse, N.Y., the $40 million Syracuse Fire Department Employees FCU said in recent months it has been reaching out to volunteer fire departments across central New York following “the changing view of NCUA” on FOM policies allowing expansion into areas beyond 25 miles from the main office. The 6,000-member Syracuse credit union has been reaching out to volunteer firefighters in communities 50 to 75 miles from Syracuse, said William Ryan, president and CEO. “That does mean we will get the plumber, the candlestick maker and the Indian chief” said Ryan, but it is a means of expanding the membership base so the CU can avoid stagnancy. “This is a gut emotional issue for some credit unions,” he observed noting there are some who want to hold their membership to individuals who have made firefighting their professional career. There are an estimated 100,000 volunteer firefighters across New York, but Sheehan said that kind of structure does not exist in Florida “since we don’t have that many volunteer” departments. The Miami Firefighters FCU has been marketing its debit and credit products with special firefighter ID on the photo as way of retaining the professional tie-in, and Sheehan said that approach has been successful. Also discussed at the Firefighter Conference in Scottsdale in a series of roundtable discussions were new loan products, risk based pricing and indirect auto lending. Eleven firefighter CUs were represented at the conference with more than 120 firefighter CUs across the U.S. In an unusual arrangement, the Firefighters Group piggybacked its annual meeting with the Combined Council of Automotive Credit Unions in a sharing deal which saved both groups on speaker and meeting expense. Attendees from both groups sat side by side for joint conference sessions and joined in receptions and golf outings. “We got along just beautifully and it was nice to see we and the automotive guys are cut from the same cloth,” said Michael Arguellas, chairman of Los Angeles Firemen’s Credit Union. Incidentally, he asked a reporter, “Do you know these very same automotive guys actually helped reconstruct our trucks after 9/11?” The coordination of the two groups was arranged by two Washington conference planning firms, Support Processes Corp and William Rogers & Associates, which are planning a repeat of the dual conferences next October in Las Vegas. “We’re glad they’ve let us join them,” said Arguellas. -

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