Bellone to cancel fire training contract

Members of the crowd listen to Suffolk County Members of the crowd listen to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone during a luncheon and conference where Democratic grassroots leaders and elected officials announced their launch of a new initiative to educate, engage, and empower minority communities in Suffolk County. (August 12, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is planning to cancel a $2-million annual contract with a nonprofit agency that trains thousands of local volunteer firefighters, saying the county can provide more classes if it runs the program.

Bellone will terminate the contract at year's end with the nonprofit Vocational Extension and Education Board, which operates the county's fire academy in Yaphank and does firefighting instruction and field training for volunteers. The board, created by state legislation, has worked for the county since 1943.

Bellone has the backing of the Suffolk County Fire and Emergency Services Joint Council, which issued a letter from five top fire officials in support of the change. The fire chiefs have been seeking more training for months.

John J. Carney, president of the Suffolk County Chiefs Council and one of the letter signers, expressed regret about dropping the board but said, "we have to think of our fire fighters and their training."

"This is 100 percent driven by the need for more classes," said Joe Williams, Suffolk's fire safety commissioner. He estimated the change will save the county $200,000 and that the money will be used for more classes.

Board officials said the county has no expertise in running a fire academy, and warned that political appointees could be put in charge -- a possibility the administration discounts.

"I don't think it's a good idea," said William Sanok, board chairman. "The whole thing doesn't make any sense."

Administration officials say the move is necessary because state aid for fire training has declined and, as a nonprofit, the board is not eligible for federal grants. That has resulted in fewer classes, administration officials said.

Williams said that, in the past, each of the 109 volunteer fire departments in the county were offered seven field training classes a year. The number declined to six in 2012 and is projected to drop to five in 2014, Williams said. Under county operation, the number would increase to eight next year, Williams said.

According to board statistics, 45,955 volunteers underwent training sessions in 2010, as did 46,769 in 2011 and 40,193 in 2012.

Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), public safety committee chairwoman, said that while the Bellone administration is "promising more and better training . . . I want to see specifics."

Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), minority leader, said "I want real-life people with hands-on experience," conducting training. "It looks like they are trying to . . . micromanage lifesaving."

Williams said the county would eliminate two jobs paying about $80,000 each. He said the county plans to keep the current fire academy executive director and deputy, but could not say how much they will earn.

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