Muttontown Trustee Bert Spitz, the village fire commissioner has been working closely with the East Norwich Fire Department. He announced at the November meeting that the East Norwich Fire Department, was the recipient of a Nassau County Regional Emergency Service Council award.
Trustee Spitz has been talking to the fire companies that serve Muttontown: the ENFD; the Syosset Fire Department and the Jericho Fire Department. He invited the chiefs to attend the November meeting to discuss some of their problems to see if the village could help solve some of them.
An article in The New York Times crystallized his concerns about what appears to be smaller numbers of people willing to take on the lifestyle of being a volunteer firefighter and the cost Islanders would face if they had to hire paid professionals. That is especially a problem in upscale communities where the families can not afford housing.
Locally, the problems range from lack of numbers on homes which creates a problem in responding quickly to an emergency; to false alarms and the toll they take in time lost and member involvement; lack of enforcement for alarm regulations by the financially strapped Nassau County Fire Marshal office to lack of affordable housing for those people willing to take on the second job of volunteering with the fire service organizations.
The attending officers were: EN Chief Paul Power and Robert Aasheim of East Norwich; Chief John Lottes of Syosset; Chief David Ginzburg of Jericho as well as Upper Brookville resident Terry Thielen, who serves on their ZBA and was there in place of their Fire Commissioner Ed Fogarty.
Chief Paul Power said renumbering the houses in the area is something the firemen would appreciate. "People in the village think it is substandard to have numbers on their houses. People in the villages refuse to put numbers up." He said since most of the members live in East Norwich and not Muttontown, they don't know where, (for instance,) Bridal Path is. It's a risk for members to have to search for a house by looking up and down the road, just because residents refuse to number their houses."
Another issue has been lack of cooperation from residents served by the fire companies. Chief Power said when the East Norwich Volunteer Fire Company sent out mailings a year ago, they received 600 responses out of 3,300 requests for information. "We were not soliciting donations. We were asking for addresses, medical information, if they had a pool. The majority of responses were from East Norwich. Without that information, we can't save the people," said Chief Paul Power.
The fire companies put important life saving information on their computers so that when they are called to the scene of a fire, they will know what to expect. They need to know how many adults, children and pets are in the house and if there is an elderly or infirm resident, who needs extra assistance in time of an emergency.
Increasing the possibility of false alarms are the carbon monoxide alarms. Chief Power said that since the death of tennis player Vitas Gerualitis, people have installed carbon monoxide alarms and that has doubled the number of potential false alarms that go off at any and all times.
One of the problems is that there is no incentive for people to fix their alarms, he said.
"There is a lot of difference between the police response and the fire response. Besides the fact that the police are well paid and the firemen are volunteers, the police send one car but when the fire alarm goes off 70 people are called to show up. Of them, you get 20 to 30 who are willing to drop what they are doing and take an hour out of their day for (what can turn out to be) a nuisance alarm," he said.
Responding to a false alarm is made especially upsetting as a result of what Chief Power called "the carefree attitude of the residents who say 'No. We can't do anything about it.'"
While a false alarm can take 10 minutes for a police car, for the fire department to respond takes 30 to 40 manpower-hours.
Muttontown Mayor Richard Murcott said countywide, people need a Nassau County permit for a fire alarm. The central station sends a permit number to the local fire department as notification.
There are problems there too. Chief David Ginzburg of Jericho said "The fire marshal's office has had tremendous cutbacks and their clerical positions are down to nothing. They don't have the staff to enforce an action against false fire alarm calls." While the fire companies report commercial properties that have made many false alarms, the Fire Marshal's office doesn't follow up on the complaints. "They rely on us. When a company has three alarms in 30 days, we have to tell them," said Chief Ginzburg. He said Nassau County goes after the big violators and not after the smaller ones.
Mayor Murcott said the village allows one free alarm a year and after that it starts costing residents, beginning with $10 and doubles with each additional alarm. He suggested the village might do better charging $100 for the second time.
Chief Power asked it they can pass a village ordinance that three alarms in 30 days it too much. He asked them to consider the risk factor as 30 firefighters go to the firehouse and risk accidents going there and then going to the scene as well as the risk if there is a fire.
There's also a backlash, said Jericho Chief Ginzburg.
"There is a negative side effect. People hear nuisance alarms and the turnout is less. They are not going to leave their job and family for a (repeated) false alarm," he said.
Muttontown Deputy Clerk/Treasurer Barbara Madden, who handles the false alarm fines, said there were three kitchen alarms in a house during one month.
"Three times a year is too much," said Chief Power.
"Every time someone takes a shower the steam makes the alarm go off. Sometimes before they call to say it's a false alarm, we are off responding," said Chief Ginzburg.
Chief Power added that the fire alarms come mostly from the incorporated villages, that East Norwich doesn't have false alarms.
Chief John Lottes of Syosset said another problem occurs during construction. He had three alarms in three days from construction sites in the village. Smoke detectors can't discriminate between fire or construction material. He said it is important to remind people when they do construction to protect the alarm heads. "Monday to Friday, between 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. when we pull up at a residential alarm, there is a construction van there. It's a violation if construction workers work without checking on the fire alarm."
The mayor asked if the fire companies would be interested in inspecting village alarms to see that they are registered and functioning correctly.
Chief Power said, "Absolutely not." It would mean spending more volunteer hours on the job. He suggested the village, use the existing Nassau County law and enforce it.
Chief Power said if a resident goes to a reputable alarm company, they register the alarm, at a cost of $35.
Trustee Ed Henn suggested they send a letter to residents who have repeated false alarms.
"We will try to alleviate your problems, so you can help us better," said Trustee Spitz.
The mayor said, "You call us and we'll keep track of the number of alarms."
Chief Power said years ago there were chronic locations but today, there are so many alarms in general that now if an alarm goes off twice a year it is a problem. He too said the responders get to know a repeat offender and that can lessen their desire to leave their own situation.
Sometimes a boss doesn't want to let someone go, he said.
Jericho Chief Ginzburg said, increasingly, people are less available during working hours.
"What can we do to prevent the loss of firefighters?" asked Bert Spitz.
Chief Power said, "We live in an exclusive area. All firefighters are blue collar workers. Today both the husband and the wife are working. I can't afford a house in East Norwich and have to move."
He said, "Houses in the village go for $300,000 to $350,000, and the new homeowners don't want to volunteer. Their wives are working and in East Norwich, nannies are walking kids on the streets."
It takes a lot of time and dedication to be a fireman, he said.
He suggested a tax advantage for volunteer firefighters and housing incentives. "Maybe the village can offer something to entice people to serve from the villages. We put up recruitment signs to find people."
He said there is only one member each who come from Muttontown, Upper Brookville and Glen Head out of about 100 volunteers.
The company already has a junior firefighters program, he said.
Possibly a tuition reimbursement program or a scholarship program for volunteers would work. Possibly banks could help with low interest mortgages.
Bert Spitz said, "We have to all realize that these fellows are all heroes. It's very difficult to say you have a budget, cut back. They have been reasonable in the amount of money they are budgeting the village for," he said.
"Perhaps we can start something to help them, and take it higher politically."
He said the Mineola Fire Department went to Judy Jacobs and asked for free tuition at Nassau Community College, but it was not put into the budget.
The Jericho Chief Ginzburg said the incentive wouldn't do much for his area. "The kids are coming out of one of the top rated schools in the nation. Ninety-five percent of the graduates go to a four-year away college and don't come back because it is too expensive to live here. I live in Jericho with my single mom, therefore I can be Chief of the Jericho Fire Department. I couldn't do what I do if I didn't live at home."
He said in Jericho they lowered the age of volunteers from 18 to 25 to 17 and got a few more members. A junior club was organized through the school and now has 40 members.
"But by age 18, they graduate from high school and move to Hicksville." While most active members are between 18 to 25, he said, "We need the 30- to 45-year-old homeowners who are going to stay here awhile."
More than half the Jericho firemen don't live in Jericho, he said. Almost all the officers live in Hicksville. He said, the NYS Fireman's retirement program was put in place for the purpose of volunteer retention. "The problem is you can't tell an 18-year-old that when you get to be 60 you will get the money. It means nothing to them at that age."
Half the area served by Jericho is Brookville and the rest is Jericho and Muttontown.
Mayor Murcott asked how much it would cost to run a full-time fire department. Jericho Chief Ginzburg said they have a plan in the works to hire 10 people at a cost of $50,000 to $55,000 a person. That would mean two people on duty at a time for a full medical response since they are at least half the calls answered.
"That would wipe out our budget of $900,000 a year," said Chief Power.
He said there are things to consider such as "Do you pay for professional firefighters or give incentives to volunteers. We pay for their training classes and they sign a contract with us."
Chief Power said, "As real estate costs go up, it (the volunteer base) will dry up in inverse proportion to the cost of real estate. Look at the number of homes in the area. There are 170,000 for 300 to 400 volunteers.
In East Norwich there are 100 and many are older members. There are 60 active volunteers," he said.
Chief John Lottes of Syosset said, "We are not dropping the ball when the alarm goes off. We help with mutual aid. If we don't have the resources needed at the scene, we call each other." There are 71 fire departments in Nassau County, he said.
Chief Power said East Norwich has consolidated their medical resources with the Oyster Bay and Atlantic Steamer companies by having one medical person responder car for Oyster Bay-East Norwich which is staffed between the three departments.
Syosset Chief Lottes said there are mostly medical calls. There recently was a fire in a house, the second one this year. "We don't get many. Three out of four are medical calls." They transport them to the hospital.
"We are fortunate that Syosset Hospital is nearby," he said.
Later in the board meeting, resident Ken Hollins asked if the village can give money to the fire company. Village Attorney Peter MacKinnon said they can't give them a gift, explaining that the fire company gives the village an operating budget to which they contribute.
Mayor Murcott asked if they could fund an ambulance and Mr. MacKinnon said yes. Mr. Murcott suggested they could keep the fines from the false alarms that could be used to do that.