MIAMI, Fla. – Two firefighter credit unions – on opposite coasts – are stepping up field of membership expansion to include larger numbers of smaller fire department units as the national debate continues over dilution of professional “identity.” The $60-million Miami Firefighters Federal CU and the $600-million Los Angeles Firemen’s CU have programs underway to solicit fire units in outlying areas as a means of growing the member base, but with an eye on retaining “pure” firefighter loyalty. Firemen’s CUs across the country have for months grappled with the problem of trying to expand, but with a member base in which CU boards resist the idea of letting “community” residents gain access to an entity firemen call “their own.” The $360-million San Francisco Fire CU is one CU that has opened the door to community members and claims it is working well though “it was a difficult decision and required immense patience with our members,” explained John Rebholtz, president/CEO and a retired firefighter. Though not converting to a community charter, the San Francisco CU in accordance with California statutes simply adopted an FOM change in its bylaws covering the city of San Francisco, said Rebholtz. Until the change occurred, “we were a stagnant credit union growing less than 2% a year and we saw little future growth and higher expenses,” said Rehboltz, who noted increased costs associated with adapting to Internet technology and expanded service. There was initial resistance and unhappiness as firefighters “had to stand in the teller line not next to their own but to a resident of the community,” said Rebholtz. But Grant Sheehan, president of Miami Firefighters FCU, maintains FOM expansion can be achieved by reaching out to fire stations in outlying areas and his CU in the last six months has added firefighter groups Palm Beach, Coral Cables and Miami Beach associations to its FOM “There is a growth potential of 2,000 members in these three communities,” said Sheehan, arguing that effective marketing such as branded debit cards and personalized CU checks can attract them as members. Miami Firefighters with 4,700 members does not need to “dilute the membership” away from a firefighter base. “We like to say we are exclusively a firefighter credit union – we know their habits and lifestyles,” said Sheehan, a retired fireman, who also is national coordinator for the annual Firefighters Credit Union Conference. That CU group, which joined up with a Combined Council of Automotive Credit Unions last October in Scottsdale, Ariz. to save on conference expenses, is slated to meet again in another dual arrangement Oct. 7-9 at the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas and is certain to have firefighter “identity” on the agenda. Meanwhile, Los Angeles Firemen’s CU said it has been adding “two fire station units a month” to its 19,700-member California base as it prepares for statewide expansion. In January it added the Santa Barbara fire department, some 90 miles from Los Angeles. Over the last year and a half it has added some 20 fire department units in metropolitan L.A. and hopes to expand further statewide “in a series of concentric circles,” said Dixie Abramian, vice president of marketing. Elsewhere in the U.S., many smaller firefighter CUs have also been expanding via the “professional” route including the $26 million Fire Fighters CU of Tulsa, Okla. whose president, Frances Reed, and members of her tiny staff make twice-a-month visits to fire stations in metropolitan Tulsa. “We try to meet at stations with local union leaders and we bring lots of goodies and trinkets as we try to pay special attention to firefighter needs,” she said. Kenny Hansome, president and CEO of Firefighters CU of Indianapolis, says his $45-million, 8,000-member CU has decided to expand its FOM to include professionals and volunteers in the seven-county area surrounding Marion County, and perhaps one day the FOM might be expanded. “But remember,” he warned, in expanding Firefighters has to be careful “not to encroach on other credit unions,” and that would the four or five other Indiana firefighter CUs. -

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