Back in the 1930s when Coram was little more than a wide spot in a woodsy country road, its volunteer firefighters held Halloween dances and chicken barbecues to pay off the firehouse mortgage.
Seventy years later, with about $5 million in annual tax revenue, their biggest worry wasn't money but keeping up with all the calls for help. They could muster only half the volunteers needed to fight daytime fires, and on many medical calls, no one showed up at all.
So, like a growing number of Long Island fire agencies, the Coram Fire District took two steps to fix its problems: It hired paramedics to handle the increasing medical calls and, in 2003, built a firehouse designed to entice new volunteers.
It is the biggest firehouse on Long Island, a $7.7-million, 39,000-square-foot headquarters with spacious offices, a gym with a tiki-themed juice bar, party rooms lavished with ornate moldings, tile mosaics and stained glass, and vast truck bays whose teal-and-peach-tinted concrete floors match the building's carpets. It is for members only.
"There's a lot of money that's been spent to, I guess you would say, be the carrot on the end of the stick," said Coram Fire Commissioner Tom Lyon.
Hiring the paramedics worked -- county records show the department's ambulance response times improved by 3 1/2 minutes. But, so far, the new firehouse hasn't -- Coram's membership fell from 155 the year before it opened to 141 now. This year, the average Coram homeowner paid more in taxes for the volunteer fire department, $842, than for the county police who patrol their neighborhood and are some of the nation's highest-paid officers.
It is a story, to greater and lesser degrees, that is being replicated throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties. Long Islanders are paying big-city prices to preserve a small-town volunteer fire service that struggles to keep pace with the growing demands placed upon it.
High cost of fire protection
Long Island is the last densely populated region in America served almost exclusively by volunteers. Their service is cherished by many residents as the ideal of what a community should be, neighbor caring for neighbor. But between 1980 and 2000, the costs to taxpayers of supporting fire districts more than doubled after adjusting for inflation, growing almost three times as fast as spending by other local governments.
With 179 different agencies -- each with its own rules, budgets and closely held membership lists -- fire protection on Long Island is so fragmented that it has long defied analysis. But through hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents collected by Newsday through the Freedom of Information law, a detailed picture emerges of a system whose growing costs and challenges are beginning to overwhelm the volunteers' good intentions.
Volunteer fire protection here costs more than $319 million a year to run, and fire agencies own more than $1 billion worth of buildings and equipment, but most Long Islanders can't count on their local volunteers to deliver help fast enough to revive someone whose heart has stopped beating or to put out a fire in the room where it started.
Emergency fire switchboards are busier than ever dispatching crews to automatic alarms, but actual fires and deaths are way down, experts say and records indicate. Meanwhile, medical calls have far outstripped fire alarms, making up about two-thirds of the workload for most departments that provide the service.
Tougher technical and safety mandates have driven up the cost of fire protection everywhere, but Long Island's volunteer fire agencies have gained national renown for the ways they spend the public's money.
They spend it on premium fire trucks often too big to fit in firehouses and too numerous to staff. Long Island has more fire apparatus than New York City and the city and county of Los Angeles combined, departments that protect almost three times as much land and six times as many people while answering more than 12 times as many calls for help.
They spend it building and expanding firehouses equipped with bars, party rooms and gyms. Long Island has about twice as many fire stations as called for in national standards based on driving distance.
They spend it on out-of-town conventions, luxury hotel rooms, drag-racing competitions billed as training, and elaborate ceremonies that can top the annual budgets of most of the state's fire districts. North Babylon laid out $100,000 for two banquets in 2003 for 208 volunteers, and Nassau fire officials paid almost six times as much going to conferences as those from Westchester County, the state found.
They spend it with no meaningful oversight. The state comptroller collects annual financial data from the districts but hasn't audited one on Long Island since 2001, and only one in five departments files required federal tax returns on the donations they solicit.
And, increasingly, Long Island's volunteer fire agencies -- two-thirds of which are independent districts run by unpaid, elected commissioners -- spend taxpayer money hiring people to do jobs volunteers used to do themselves. They may be called custodians or cleaners, but more and more often these employees are expected to drive ambulances and fight fires.
"Nobody wants to be honest and face the facts," said Commissioner William Theis, chairman of the Terryville Fire District in Brookhaven Town. "I never want to see a catastrophe, but if one happens, the public's going to be asking us, what did we do?
"Just go to a parade and see all the equipment you've got there. Look at my budget this year. In my heart, I know we could have a paid department, but if I propose this, believe me, every Tom, Dick and Harry will be cutting my head off ... But we don't know who is going to come to the fire when the alarm gets kicked."
Other volunteer leaders, though, say the fire service remains strong and provides far cheaper protection than paid departments could.
"As far as I'm concerned, the system isn't broke, and I want to know who the people are who want to fix it," said William Swift, a Glenwood Landing fire trustee and a former chairman of the Nassau Fire Commission. The only thing the system needs, he said, is more incentives to recruit and retain volunteers.
In some places the price and service of volunteer departments are superior, Newsday's analysis found, but performance and cost vary widely.
Depending upon where you live on Long Island, you might pay anywhere from less than $60 to more than $2,500 a year in taxes for fire protection, and the department might average anywhere from less than 4 minutes to more than 13 to get an engine or an ambulance to your house. Some of the most expensive fire departments, Newsday found, provide some of the slowest service.
Overall, volunteer fire agencies in Nassau and Suffolk counties cost at least three times as much per resident in 2003 as the average of nine Northeastern states, and most can't get to calls as fast as experts say they should.
For less than what the volunteer service costs for each resident it protects here, other communities in the Northeast buy prompter, more reliable service bolstered by paid firefighters.
In defense of the system
Of course costs are higher on Long Island, but any kind of cost-benefit analysis is politically sensitive.
"Every town official that I've ever talked to is scared to death of alienating the firehouses," said Babylon's former town finance director, Doug Jacob. "They all say this is the dullest pencil in their organizations. Towns have gone through years of cost-cutting. Everything is scrutinized. Nobody gets new stuff. They freeze everyone. But the fire departments get a tax increase every year. Nobody's saying no to them. Truly, as a taxpayer, this is a little out of control."
The system's many defenders argue that it is hard to put a price on the important place that volunteers hold in their communities. For no pay, they rise in the middle of the night, give up weekends and abandon holiday meals to protect property and save lives. And while Long Island's volunteers are among the best trained and equipped in the country, the fire protection they provide still makes up a relatively small part of most residents' tax bills.
"People of this county are very lucky to have dedicated men and women who do this for zero dollars," said Frank Nocerino, a North Massapequa fire commissioner and secretary/treasurer of the state fire districts association. " ... Sometimes it's not what it costs, it's knowing that their local volunteer fireman is down on the corner, or their next-door neighbor. People like their fire department."
The Firemen's Association of the State of New York estimates that replacing volunteers with paid firefighters would cost Long Island taxpayers $1.3 billion more a year than they pay today. The firefighters' union, however, says that figure dramatically overestimates the number of paid firefighters needed.
Fire departments have always been part public service, part social club, organizing sports, parties and outings for volunteers and their families.
Members who have criticized the system say they have been disciplined or cut off socially. But quietly across Long Island, on Web sites, in firefighter newspapers and firehouse bars, volunteers have begun to argue in recent years that the fire service here has crossed a crucial threshold.
Five months before he died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, Brian Hickey -- a New York City fire captain, former Bethpage commissioner and leading critic of volunteer spending -- gave a blistering critique.
"It's a sin," he said. "If the volunteer fire departments didn't have any money, you could argue that nothing could be done. But the budgets are getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and what's happening?"
Questioning response times
What's happening is that it's getting harder every day to find enough active volunteers, said Greg Sullivan, a former commissioner in the Centerport Fire District.
"There should be a study because there is a shortage, and it is well known," said Sullivan, who after he opposed the expansion of his firehouse was suspended for a year in 2000 on that charges that he had discredited the department.
"You can't just keep throwing more perks at the problem because it's not working. It hasn't worked for far too many years," said Sullivan, a volunteer since 1962.
Thomas Cunningham, a lifelong volunteer, former Hicksville commissioner and retired New York City fire lieutenant, said that for the money being spent, residents deserve better.
"I'm all for the volunteers themselves and to give them every kind of break and anything for retention," he said, "but in return, show me you can be here in three, four or five minutes. That's all ... Show me a timely response."
But on Long Island, it takes about five minutes for the average fire truck or ambulance just to gather enough volunteers to leave the station, dispatch records show.
"You're in trouble if you have a system that takes five minutes to get out of the firehouse," said Carroll Buracker, a Virginia consultant who has done studies for dozens of Northeastern fire departments.
The National Fire Protection Association has a complicated set of standards for volunteer response times based on whether an area's population density is urban, suburban or rural. Last year, most Long Island departments for which Newsday obtained records didn't meet them.
Most of Long Island is classified as urban. That means 15 volunteers and their vehicles should show up at 90 percent of alarms within 9 minutes of being dispatched. Nassau and Suffolk records don't show how long it takes to get the required number of volunteers there. But using the time the first engine arrives at the scene, a more generous measure, only 29 of 58 Nassau and 10 of 55 Suffolk urban departments met the standard.
Seven of the 11 suburban departments in Newsday's analysis failed to meet their standard, while all 23 rural departments met theirs.
"Your tipping point is response times," said Tim McGrath, a former fire chief and emergency services consultant in Illinois. "What is your acceptable response time?"
In a fire, according to the fire protection association, the likelihood someone will die is 10 times greater when it spreads beyond the room it started in, which takes about 10 minutes. Once an emergency call from a citizen is dispatched -- a process that can take anywhere from seconds to minutes -- it took an average of 7 minutes and 36 seconds for a Long Island fire engine to arrive at a scene last year. Hooking up hoses usually adds a couple of minutes more.
Only five Nassau agencies monitored by county dispatchers and none in Suffolk could reliably get the first help of any kind to a fire or medical call within 6 minutes.
"If a person has a major coronary and you're not there within four to six minutes," McGrath said, "the chances of recovery are very slim."
Last year, fire department ambulances took an average of 8 minutes and 43 seconds to arrive at a call after being dispatched, records show.
No higher level of government analyzes the response time performance of Long Island departments, and the few statistics collected are incomplete. It is not even possible to say how many fires there were in Suffolk County last year. State law requires all departments to file reports on the fires they fight, but only 45 percent of Nassau agencies and 55 percent in Suffolk complied.
Still, officials say, residents are pleased with the protection they receive.
"We still cling to the belief that it is saving money and at the same time providing a fine product," said Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, long a volunteer supporter. " ... We have not seen many, if any, cases of problems related to firemen losing lives because they got there a minute too late."
'A dying breed'
Whenever talk turns to revamping the system, its defenders insist that what's needed are more incentives for recruiting and retaining volunteers. After troubling slides in the 1980s and 1990s, Nassau and Suffolk rosters have hovered around 20,000 in recent years, although it is an aging membership and the number who answer alarms is far lower, records show.
Amid a steadily rising number of alarms, mostly for medical calls, "Volunteers Needed" signs have become almost as much of a fixture outside firehouses as flagpoles. Even the inspirational example of Sept. 11, and a series of tax breaks, pension sweeteners and other new incentives approved by lawmakers haven't shaken that trend.
"The volunteerism is not there," said Terryville Fire Commissioner Thomas Nulty.
His district built a $6 million firehouse expansion, and sponsored outings and giveaways, including an annual Broadway show, to attract members. But they are still having trouble getting volunteers to go on calls and have turned to paid ambulance crews.
"It's the older guys who are maintaining the service," Nulty said. "The attitude when we joined was, 'What can we do for the community?' Now when these guys join, it's, 'What are you doing for me?' It's a dying breed."
Nonetheless, fire service leaders believe that even if incentives aren't perfect solutions, they're better than the alternative: The costly union contracts and whopping property tax increases that fully paid fire departments would entail.
"If we have a policeman that's making over $100,000 a year, can we afford to pay firemen?" asked Joe Fox, a Middle Island commissioner, during a recruiting visit to a Bay Shore mall.
"Wouldn't that union from the city be the first ones out here to organize the firefighters and say, 'I want the same as that police union is getting?' Everybody'd have to start moving off the Island."
But suburbs nationwide have found other options. Thousands of departments -- including Garden City and Long Beach -- employ a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters. They usually provide faster service and cost less -- an average of $93 per person in the Northeast in 2003, according to the International City/County Managers Association.
While Long Islanders spend on average $113 per resident on their volunteer fire departments, this does not include other local and regional costs that are usually part of a municipal fire department, such as training academies and fire marshals. That boosts the per-person cost for fire and ambulance protection to about $136.
"If you're spending more than $100 for a volunteer system, in our experience in the U.S., that seems high," said Buracker, the Virginia consultant.
Lots of spending
In some communities, taxpayers are spending more for their volunteers than they are for general fund taxes that pay for most town services. All of those are in Suffolk.
And in two communities, Coram and Gordon Heights, residents are paying more for volunteer fire protection than for the unionized county police that Fox warned of. This year, the average fire tax bill for a single-family home in Gordon Heights was $1,344, while the police district bill was $638. In Coram, fire taxes averaged $842 while police taxes were $759. Both fire districts have had costly new building projects in recent years.
"They are like teenagers on a credit card," said Gina Previte, a resident of the Gordon Heights Fire District who paid $2,355.44 in fire taxes last year. Previte and other residents of her subdivision signed a petition asking to withdraw from the fire district, but the commissioners refused.
The details of fire spending on Long Island can be baroque, drawing criticism from civic groups, state auditors and many volunteers themselves.
West Islip spent $2,000 to hire a limo bus to drive 16 officials to and from a Baltimore conference this year, even though the district has two 10-passenger vans of its own. An official said they didn't want to send emergency vehicles that far from home.
Middle Island commissioners ordered up hand-tailored $925 wool-and-cashmere suits, $125 custom shirts and $100 matching ties and pocket squares. Officials said they considered it a kind of uniform.
Massapequa officials attending disaster management conferences in 1998 and 1999 opted to bypass the $130-a-night convention hotel in Orlando to stay instead with their families in $422-a-night accommodations at Walt Disney World's Lake Buena Vista Resort. An official said the hotel was just a short drive from the conference and the most expensive room was used for meetings.
While the spending on travel and parties are favorite targets of critics, expensive trucks and buildings are where the costs can really add up.
Long Island has "always been there as an example of a polar extreme -- of extreme overinvestment in fire suppression services: too many firehouses, too many fire trucks," said Charles Jennings, a fire deployment expert who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.
Bells and whistles
Earl Robinson, who has sold trucks here for 30 years, said Long Island volunteers demand the latest in technology, but the area's real hallmark is "glitz and glitter."
"Stainless steel. Aluminum. Bright finishes, places you can polish and clean," he said. "Aluminum wheels, extra lights far surpassing the requirements ... They all add up to the bottom line."
And Long Island has a lot of trucks.
New York City owns one heavy rescue truck with specialized rescue tools for each of its five boroughs, plus a single spare for use citywide. Fully equipped, each can cost $750,000 or more.
Long Island fire departments have 146 of them.
"The volunteers don't get paid, and their equipment represents the character of the men and the company that they belong to," explained Michael Norris, a Wantagh volunteer who is a leading specialist in gold leaf for fire trucks. "... It's almost like jewelry: Why would you need a $10,000 engagement ring? It's something that's important because it shows your fiancee how much you value her."
So it's not surprising that the more control firefighters have over their own budgets, the higher the cost to taxpayers, according to Newsday's analysis.
Fire protection costs an average of $124 per person in the two-thirds of Long Island departments run by fire districts, whose poorly publicized, low-turnout elections are usually dominated by firefighter families. Nassau Assessor Harvey Levinson this year demanded closer scrutiny of fire and other special districts, which he called "invisible governments."
Somewhat less expensive at about $119 per resident are the 20 independent incorporated fire companies, which contract with towns and villages to provide services. Their budgets have to be submitted for approval, but many local officials complain they must pay whatever these departments ask.
"We can't say no because we won't have fire service," said Sands Point Mayor Leonard Wurzel.
The least expensive service is offered by Long Island's 33 village and city fire departments at an average of $62 per resident. They include some of the busiest departments, such as Hempstead, which costs about $30 per resident, including the cost of dispatchers who take calls for several of the village's departments.
"Unlike the fire districts, our budget goes back to the taxpayers, and we have to be very frugal in our increases," said Babylon Village Mayor Ralph Scordino, whose department costs $55 per resident.
In general, though, both citizens and governments traditionally have taken a hands-off approach to fire departments, mindful that firefighters are active, organized and trusted members of their communities.
Recent thefts of hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax money and donations from fire departments across Long Island -- $700,000 in Dix Hills, $208,000 in Bayville, $90,000 in Great Neck and $70,000 in Centereach -- went unnoticed for months or years, according to prosecutors. They often came to light by chance.
In Dix Hills, where charges against the former department treasurer are pending, the missing money was discovered only after checks from a Sept. 11 benefit fund bounced.
Taking on their own
Recently, volunteers themselves have started to speak out about spending.
In Manhasset, 45-year volunteer Brian Kenny bought full-page newspaper ads in 2003 arguing his department could be run more cheaply and reliably if it went paid.
In East Northport, former Suffolk fire commission member James McCormick has become the district's fiercest critic, lambasting the board over its purchase of a $7,590 granite conference table: "Have you no sense of moral responsibility to the taxpayers or is it just to satisfy your egos?"
In Bethpage, Hickey, before he died at age 47, repeatedly sought allies to get fire departments to drop territorial boundaries and share more responsibilities. As commissioner, he persuaded neighboring Levittown to team up with his district to speed response, but other agencies wouldn't go along.
Nassau County ... will soon be called to judgment because of the cost of running the Volunteer Fire service," he wrote in an open letter seven years ago to a firefighter newspaper, Fire News. " ... The time is nearing for a change."
Some people Hickey had counted as friends stopped talking to him after that, his widow, Donna, said.
Today, it's almost impossible to travel around Bethpage and not run into a memorial to Brian Hickey, be it the post office, a road, a scholarship, the department's refurbished ladder truck or the block of polished stone outside the firehouse.
Donna Hickey appreciates the gestures because her husband loved being a volunteer. But she wishes they'd remember what he had to say about the volunteer system, too.
"If anything, I think these guys should be giving more for his ideals because they knew he was right," she said. " ... It just doesn't work anymore, and it hasn't worked in a long time."
Stacey Altherr was the principal researcher on this story; she was later joined by staff writers Tom McGinty and Eden Laikin and Mary Ellen Pereira.