Written by Andy Newman Saturday, 10 August 2013 00:00
Recruiting number firefighters has always been troublesome for local fire departments, and now 13 area companies have banded together to form a unique coalition to do something about it.
Helped by JSK Public Safety, a small private grant-writing company, units from Albertson, Bellerose Terrace, East Williston, Floral Park Center, Great Neck Alert, Great Neck Vigilant, Lakeview, Lynbrook, Manhasset-Lakeville, New Hyde Park, Plandome, Port Washington and South Hempstead have been awarded a $500,000 three-year grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to boost their recruiting efforts.
“This partnership is definitely the first of its kind on Long Island,” says JSK’s Tom Devaney, who not only has been a volunteer firefighter with East Williston for 20 years but is also on the board of directors of the Mineola Volunteer Ambulance Corps. “Nationwide, just not on Long Island, departments are suffering for members,” he says. “We can never have enough. If you compare the numbers to previous years, we are definitely down. Too many people are working two and three jobs to cover their bills and just don’t have the time to serve.”
“Many people who live to Long Island don’t realize that firefighters are not paid,” says Devaney, who works with JSK founder Kevin Mulrooney. A retired NYPD sergeant,
Mulrooney has served as a volunteer firefighter in East Williston for over 30 years.
According to FEMA, New York State currently has over 1,600 fire departments, and volunteers staff almost 95 percent of them. New York City’s firefighters are an exception.
“We’re trying to reach out to all those people who don’t realize that there are incentives to being a firefighter,” says Devaney. “There are insurance incentives. Some people don’t have health insurance. You can actually buy into the local municipal health insurance plan as a volunteer. Every jurisdiction is different. There are actually scholarships available to Nassau Community College. The tax incentive is 10 percent off your property taxes, if the volunteer is the homeowner. There are programs that can yield a pension.
Here in East Williston the maximum monthly pension can be as much as $800.”
Another incentive is an annual physical, in addition to the initial physical to qualify for service. Some departments also offer life insurance policies, with on- and off-the-job coverage. After the initial physical and background check, an applicant is giving 40 to 80 hours of training, depending on the department. There is no maximum age for volunteers; the minimum age, usually 17, varies from department to department.
How did the 13 departments, who are now working on their second year of the grant, get together to form a group? “This came about through our experience and success in writing grants for East Williston and Mineola,” says Devaney, referring to the work that he and Mulrooney had been doing. “All the other departments began to call us up and ask questions.”
“[FEMA] loves it when they see fire departments working together, especially smaller departments,” Devaney says. “There are 71 companies in Nassau County. Can you imagine 71 separate companies applying to the government for this money and then the government has to deal with 71 applications, 71 payouts, 71 piles of receipts, 71 audits, etc.?”
Devaney explained how the grant will help: “The majority of it is for recruitment and retention of volunteers. If my department sets up a booth at a street fair, I’m diminishing my own manpower to run it. In case of a fire or other emergency, there’s only a skeleton crew back at the firehouse to handle it. When you run a fundraiser, you need everyone on hand to run it properly. So with this grant, what’s allowed is for us to pay other firefighters in one of the other cooperating fire companies to come up and man that booth for an hourly wage. And now the departments always have a full staff available. Each department also gets a marketing campaign to promote volunteerism and each gets a staffing needs assessment to determine where new recruits are needed.”
Great Neck Alert is serving as the direct contact with FEMA regarding the funds and all necessary ongoing paperwork. Alert was asked to be the host because of its excellent track record in dealing with the government on previous projects. Each department has one member that sits on a governing board that oversees policy and expenditures.