WHAT IF YOU HAD A FIRE AND NOBODY CAME?

BY RORY J. THOMPSON

What if you had a fire and nobody came? Although that’s a little far-fetched, it could happen at any time.

“I will tell you this off the record; if you quote me, I will deny ever having said it, but there are billions-that’s billions with a ‘B’-of dollars’ worth of real estate on Long Island that is protected from fire by a whim,” according to a high-ranking Long Island, New York, fire official who understandably didn’t want to be named.

His assertion is right on the mark: Unless someone lives in the incorporated Long Island communities of Long Beach and Garden City, homes and property are protected by volunteer firefighters who don’t have to come to a burning house if they don’t want to. There’s no sanction for failing to show for any particular fire call. No one is taken to task for missing a big fire, unless you count the inevitable razzing that greets those members who show up at the firehouse after the flames are out and the trucks and gear have been repacked. And despite the popularity and endurance of the volunteer fire service, it’s a situation that’s getting worse.

DWINDLING NUMBERS

One major problem affecting the fire service is that more and more, younger recruits can no longer afford to stay in many suburban communities because of rising housing costs.

“It’s difficult to keep volunteers. If I had to guess, I’d say the turnover rate is every four to five years,” says Eric Schields, a volunteer firefighter in Baldwin, New York, where he once served as chief in the town’s volunteer department. He recently retired as a captain in the paid Garden City (NY) Fire Department.

Schields has seen it happen again and again: “Kids join up, go through their training, finish college, meet a girl, want to get married, and then can’t afford to live in the town,” he says, summing up the frustrations of a growing number of fire departments.

But even as the number of fire calls has been dropping steadily in recent years, so, too, has the number of people willing to sign up as volunteer firefighters and ambulance technicians. Now, the firefighters who are still available are starting to cover neighboring towns as well as their own.

“I’ve seen the re-toning [of fire calls] and mutual-aid calls growing,” says Chief Peter Meade, assistant fire marshal for Fire and Rescue Services in Long Island’s Nassau County, an affluent area just east of New York City. “A lot of our shortcomings are being covered by mutual aid. A lot of departments are willing to go on mutual aid to cover other departments.”

What that means is, if a community can’t field enough volunteer firefighters for a big fire, a call goes out to neighboring towns to send over trucks and personnel. Although years ago a mutual-aid call was a rare event, more and more departments are sounding the alarm, especially during daytime hours when the volunteers are at work.

TO THE RESCUE

The same holds true for the rescue companies, which run the bulk of ambulance calls for the suburban volunteer fire departments. One former Long Island chief, who also requested anonymity, conceded he sometimes had trouble gathering a crew for middle-of-the-day ambulance calls, as in the case of Kathy, below.

My wife’s friend Kathy was out walking the dog a few months back when she stepped on a broken patch of sidewalk, fell down, and dislocated her shoulder. In agonizing pain, she made her way back to the house, where she let the dog loose in the fenced-in yard, sat down, and called her dad for help. He lives three towns away.

As luck would have it, my wife Pattie happened to call minutes later, and on hearing of Kathy’s injury, rushed right over. Since she is the wife of a firefighter, Pattie knew this was serious and called the ambulance. And then the waiting began.

First, the local police showed up and agreed they should wait for the ambulance. Then Kathy’s dad arrived. As all this was going on, Pattie heard the chatter over the cop’s radio that the ambulance had a driver but no medical technician. The cop offered to take Kathy in his patrol car, but Pattie knew that would mean an agonizing stretch waiting in the emergency room, and vetoed the idea. After a second re-tone of the alarms and still no tech, my wife blurted out to the cop, “This is why we need a paid department.”

HIGH-PRICED COVERAGE

Like many other suburban communities, Long Island’s population has grown in recent years. Those who were born there tend to stay there and raise families of their own. The quality of life is good; nice beaches abound; there’s plenty of shopping and golf; schools are generally well ranked nationally; and although the cost of living is high, good-paying jobs in New York City are a train ride away. Yet one area that is losing ground is the volunteer fire service. Those who were the backbone of this efficient, professional group are retiring, dying off, or moving away-and they’re not being replaced.

“I instituted a policy a while back where FireCom [which dispatches 46 Nassau County fire departments] will alert the Nassau County Police Ambulance to start heading in if we can’t get a crew,” the ex-chief mentioned above confided. “This way, we know someone is on the way to help should the volunteers come up short. It’s an effective stopgap measure, and it may be a portent of things to come.”

PAY-PER-CALL

Williamstown, Massachusetts, has been paying its “volunteer” firefighters for a number of years on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. Their procedures may well serve as a template for volunteer fire departments facing a drop-off because the firefighters and ambulance technicians are busy working second jobs.

“This all got started back a number of years ago. The issue came up when the firemen had no turnout gear. They might’ve had a coat but nothing else, back in the 1920s or 1930s,” says Williamstown Chief Craig Pedercini. The firefighters asked the town if there was some way to compensate them for clothing that was damaged in a fire, according to the chief. The pay-per-call rate started at about 25 cents or 50 cents an hour.

Currently, members of the “call-department,” as it’s known, are paid $10 an hour for each call to which they respond. Firefighters are paid at the end of June, covering the period from December through June, and around December 1, covering July 1 to the end of November.

According to Pedercini, this system has never been promoted as an incentive to join. “Prospective members come in after talking with other firefighters. But we never push [the financial aspect]; we may mention it later, during recruiting,” he said. However, recruits are told, “If you’re here for the money, you’re in the wrong business,” Pedercini says.

IT’S HERE ALREADY

Still, some fire departments are ahead of the curve. “Many departments have had paid staff for years, most of whom serve as ‘firehousemen’ and double up as chauffeur of the ambulance or first-due engine,” says Nassau County’s Chief Meade. “Other departments-such as Baldwin, Jericho, and Lawrence-Cedarhurst [all on Long Island], among others-have hired paid EMS responders (mostly for daytime responses) because of daytime call volume and the time requirements for each EMS call.”

Lawrence-Cedarhurst is a good case in point; it was the first volunteer fire department in Nassau County to have paid emergency medical service responders, in 1995, according to Chief Ed Koehler. If the ambulance crew is in the firehouse, it can be at the scene within three minutes of being notified, Koehler says.

The community began slowly, starting with one paid medical technician being on call a day. The department now has paid coverage Monday through Saturday, from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m.

“They roll to everything,” Koehler says of his rescue crew, including general alarms of fire, where they stand by in case a firefighter gets hurt. The program is working very well, he notes, and the department would like to expand the program and the coverage.

Such coverage doesn’t come cheap, but the department makes sure it’s included in the annual budget. The fire department is incorporated, according to Koehler, and contracts out its fire protection and rescue services to Cedarhurst, Lawrence, and North Lawrence. When the program started, increases were built in to cover the cost of a paid EMS, Koehler says. The department is considering charging nonresidents who use the ambulance’s services to help defray costs, but there will never be an additional charge to local taxpayers. The program is getting a good response, the chief says.

SPREADING NATIONALLY

Adding paid members to a volunteer fire department is growing. Jim Wilson, chief of Vashon Island (WA) Fire and Rescue, has added a number of paid members in recent years.

It was the culmination of an eight-year, grassroots effort by volunteer members asking for ‘relief,’ he says, and was also identified as a major goal of the department’s strategic plan.

Although such an undertaking can help in getting rescuers to calls faster-response times improved by more than four minutes per call, according to Wilson-it’s not without its risks. It’s the single most controversial and potentially divisive organizational change, he notes.

Although fire departments are known for their camaraderie and teamwork, they are also bound by decades of tradition and do not take change lightly. While Chief Wilson extols the benefits of his new hires-“In addition to the obvious benefits, the career staff assumes responsibility for all the mundane tasks such as apparatus checks, washing vehicles, scrubbing toilets, mowing lawns, inspections, smoke detector installations, and all other drudgery”-such a move carries a price that involves more than just money.

“Do not underestimate the power of ego and/or jealousy,” the chief says. “They are powerful human emotions. Take considerable time to plan and execute the change, and be fully prepared for acrimony.”

WHAT PRICE SAFETY?

If paying some volunteer firefighters doesn’t seem like such a bad idea if they’re guaranteed to actually show up when needed, you might want to crunch some numbers first.

According to Jim Olivo, village auditor for Garden City, New York, that community has budgeted a little more than $4,447,000 for fire protection services this year, up from $4,084,000 for the 2004-2005 fiscal year. This covers 36 paid firefighters and chiefs, as well as budget line items for the department’s volunteers. The paid firefighters average about $60,000 in base pay annually after five years, but the budget also takes into consideration benefits, overtime, and higher pay for officers.

The Lawrence-Cedarhurst (NY) Fire District has an annual budget this year of a little more than $397,000 for fire protection services, and the part-time medical technicians (who get no benefits) are paid out of that. Last year’s budget was $382,000, but it should be kept in mind that except for the EMS teams, the community is protected by an all-volunteer firefighting force.

At Vashon Island (WA) Fire and Rescue, Chief Wilson is struggling with rising overtime spending. The department had budgeted $392,000 for wages this year, with an additional $17,500 for overtime contingency. But as of July 1, it had already spent $29,308 on overtime. He noted that overtime, because of the cumulative accrual of vacation and sick leave, “is killing us.” In addition, with only eight employees covering four shifts, any prolonged illness or disability pushes the system to the edge. His department has reached (and probably exceeded) the logical point at which it needs and can afford to hire a ninth employee and move to a three-shift schedule.

There has been some talk (and a significant amount of political crowing) about giving volunteer firefighters tax breaks, to encourage recruitment and retention. Last January, Suffolk County, New York, Executive Steve Levy filed legislation allowing firefighters and EMS volunteers who owned co-ops to receive the same 10-percent exemption on their property tax bills as those who own their own homes. In April, New York Senator Chuck Schumer proposed giving tax credits to volunteers across the country in recognition of their service.

But if past history is any indication, it won’t amount to much. In 2002, amid much publicity, the Nassau County Legislature proposed a tax break for volunteer firefighters and ambulance technicians. When all the noise died down and the smoke had cleared, the actual amount of savings on one firefighter’s annual tax bill would have been a whopping $17.

• • •

Many of the nation’s volunteers are nearing the breaking point. Overworked and overused, they’re responding to too many EMS calls in which the “aided” may be looking for nothing more than a free ride to the hospital, trying to bypass a stint in the emergency waiting room.

It’s just a matter of “when” and not “if” they back the ambulance into the firehouse for good and let someone get paid to do the work volunteers now do for free. The question is, who’s going to end up paying, and how much?

RORY J. THOMPSON is a 35-year-veteran of and public information officer for the Rockville Centre (NY) Volunteer Fire Department and a freelance writer who frequently covers the fire service. He received the Nassau County Fire Commission’s Gold Medal of Valor.

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