Newsday Series Stirs Mixed Reactions

For the past week, has republished a Newsday series on the Long Island volunteer fire service. The series covered all aspects of the service made up of 179 fire agencies. While the articles were far reaching and in-depth, the report made tacit the following:

* Many of the fire departments receive vehicle and equipment budgets that well exceed their needs.

* Volunteer departments double as social organizations - in extreme cases, volunteers are showered with tropical vacations, swimming pools and racing leagues.

* In spite of the prevalence of perks and social incentives, the Long Island fire departments continue to have trouble attracting recruits

* The effectiveness of fire and emergency medical services varies greatly, as some districts receive far greater protection than others

* The public is largely unaware of how fire services are financed; very often mistakenly believing that fundraising goes to core firefighting services has contacted fire officials in various positions from disparate regions of the country for their feedback. Although reactions were mixed, there were certain points on which they held common ground.

All respondents prefaced their remarks by praising the valor that individual volunteer firefighters demonstrate on a daily basis. Former Long Island Fire Department Chief, Leo Debobes, argues that individual firefighters and departments were not responsible for the amount of funds they were allotted. "The system needs to be improved, but it is not fair to critique single fire departments," he claims.

Chief Dwayne LeBlanc of the Plaincourtville, LA volunteer fire departments has similar sentiments. "I'm sure not all [Long Island volunteer fire departments] are that way. [The articles] give the impression it is all of Long Island. I wouldn't blame the firefighter."

Unsurprisingly though, the respondents without New York state roots were more vocal in their consternation of the Long Island Volunteer Fire Department's alleged extravagance. "It's way off the scale," adds Leblanc. "How come the [Long Island] public isn't in an uproar? It floors me."

Although Debobes identified with the charges of decadence, he was far more subdued in his reaction, simply stating that the articles were "raising questions that do need to be raised". He also defended certain aspects of the system at a couple of junctures, pointing out that much of the fundraising for volunteers augments death and disability benefits.

President of the Firemen's Association of the State of New York (FASNY) took this framework a step further. "In addition to saving lives, volunteer firefighters also save taxpayers money," he claimed, citing that volunteers in New York saved $2.9 billion, with $1.3 billion saved on Long Island alone.

Larry Curl, a board member of Volunteer and Combination Officers' Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said it would be easy for an outsider to jump to conclusions about the number of wealthy fire departments and how they spend their cash, but he said that's not fair. "I think you'd have to know the whole story."

Regarding incentives, LeBlanc, whose department is situated in an economically modest, rural area of Louisiana, believes that financial and social incentives are useful in attracting and retaining volunteer fire firefighters. In comparison, Debobes estimates these perks have "no significant role" in recruitment efforts.

The head of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), Philip Stittleburg, has one solution for utilizing the dwindling ranks of volunteer firefighters. "They have to get away from the. mindset that every person who walks in the door has to be a firefighter. It's like the Marine Corps, who make sure everyone knows how to fire a rifle."

Stittleburg also stated that there are people in the community with expertise waiting to help, but firefighters aren't always willing to open the door. Until that happens, volunteer departments will continue to be over-burdened -- training, running calls, fund-raising and educating the public. "There are people who don't want to be firefighters, but they wish to donate their talents to the community," Stittleburg said, adding it has not been easy getting those people accepted.

All the interviewed sources so far believe that some form of consolidation may be necessary to improve the efficiency of fire departments. Debobes believes that having volunteers in-house with assigned schedules and assigned duty shifts would be an effective way to curb response times. Reducing the number of fire chiefs, managers and administrators, he believes, could improve communication and allow districts to be covered more equitably.

Curl said re-aligning, merging or consolidating the departments wouldn't be easy. "Traditions run long and deep."

LeBlanc echoed these sentiments, while emphasizing the difficulty in changing because of what he believes to be little oversight. He agrees that adding a position like a parish coordinator may be a good means to reduce the fire department bureaucracy, adding, "Everybody is reluctant to give up control of their own little kingdom. Chiefs don't' want to give up control. It is easier not to compete with neighboring departments."

Just what impact the newspaper series has on the departments has yet to be decided. But, one fire official said he isn't optimistic. "I think it's going to have lasting implications especially on morale and on our recruitment efforts," said Carpenter.

In a letter to Long Island residents that was published in Sunday's edition, FASNY explained the fire service, the types of incidents they handle and the training involved. They also encouraged members of their community to join their ranks.

All respondents agreed that the Long Island community would have to play the largest role in any reform movement. The Newsday article had demonstrated, however, that the public is generally unaware of how their fire departments are organized and financed.