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Fire Alarm Day 4: The perks

In 1998, it was a seminar on terrorism awareness in the Gulf of Mexico aboard the Carnival cruise ship "Ecstasy." This year it was north to Alaska aboard "The Spirit" for another seminar.

And three years in between, the Fire Chiefs' Council of Suffolk County chose to do its training by the pink sands of the Bahamas.

Every October from 2002 to 2004, chiefs and commissioners jetted off to four-day training seminars at the Radisson Cable Beach resort. After spending each morning learning about building codes, national fire standards and incident command, many of them adjourned to the main pool to enjoy complimentary drinks with their wives at the swim-up bar under the hot Caribbean sun.

At other times, they were able to take advantage of the all-inclusive resort's amenities: golf on the hotel course, windsurfing on the private beach, meals at one of the six restaurants, karaoke at Islands Bar, late-night dancing at the Goombay Lounge.

Taxpayers footed the bill for some of the chiefs and commissioners at a cost of up to $325 a night plus air fare and conference fees.

"It's training for you and a little vacation ... If you make the experience pleasant, they tend to pay attention more in class," said Greg Anderson, the former Nesconset chief who helped lead two of the Bahamas trips and said he didn't attend at taxpayer expense.

Reaping the benefits

Long Island volunteers have become known in fire circles for the remarkable breadth of the perks they receive. Trips in the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean, sometimes for training, sometimes for pleasure. Ten-course annual banquets. Firehouse rec rooms with fully stocked bars. Tournament racing teams with costly high-performance vehicles. Members-only parks, pools, docks, party rooms and picnic pavilions.

"They have more money than they have stuff to buy," said Bill McGreevy, an assistant chief in the upstate Wilmington Fire District.

Paid for with taxes, donations from the public and 2 percent surcharges on most fire insurance policies, those benefits come on top of the various "recruitment and retention incentives" that lawmakers have worked to expand at a time when volunteer numbers nationally continue a steady decline. Those include pension benefits, supplemental life insurance policies, tax breaks, tuition aid, fee waivers at government-owned parks, beaches and golf courses, and discretionary grants from benevolent associations.

While some volunteer leaders eschew the more expensive trips and lavish meals, even they say that it's shortsighted for the public to begrudge volunteers small rewards for the hours upon hours they give to protect their neighbors.

"When people just come in here berating us about, in my opinion, small amounts of money that we're supposedly wasting, I have to ask: What do I give that kid here -- a jacket?" said James McCann, president of Roslyn Highlands Fire Company. " ... Always keep in mind for the fire service that you have to make it attractive to them. You have to give them something."

Volunteers shoulder burden

Yet the number of volunteers has remained stagnant at about 20,000 on Long Island for a decade as incentives have increased.

Carroll Buracker, a Virginia consultant who has advised dozens of Northeastern fire departments, said more stringent training requirements in the age of the two-career family "have placed enormous burdens on volunteers."

"I don't believe that perks or incentives will necessarily satisfy the public-safety requirements as it relates to fire or EMS," he said.

Many Long Island fire officials, like Roslyn's McCann, contend that the fringe benefits are scant compensation for the lost sleep, missed holidays and countless hours they donate to their communities.

Taxpayers "don't see the individual sacrifices that people have made throughout their lives," he said. "All those personal sacrifices are really money that you have saved the taxpayers."

But some firefighters say they are embarrassed by some of the spending.

"I think when you volunteer to do a job, you volunteer -- you don't do it for the benefits," said Anthony Frangipane, a Middle Island volunteer who has been repeatedly disciplined after bitter arguments with the fire commission. "Everybody wants something these days."

Volunteer fire departments have always seen themselves as social as well as public safety organizations. North Lindenhurst's 1957 incorporation certificate, for example, lists its purpose as protecting the public and providing "for the mutual enjoyment, entertainment and improvement of its members socially and physically."

Smithtown's firehouse has a bowling alley. Two of Freeport's firehouses have swimming pools. Wantagh's Hook, Ladder & Engine Co. No. 1 owns a 129-acre Adirondack hunting camp where members can take their families to shoot, fish and ride all-terrain vehicles. The Wyandanch firefighters benevolent association owns a vacation lodge in the Poconos.

"I'd say the volunteer fire service is 90 percent social and 10 percent fires," said Joe Fox, a Middle Island commissioner. " ... People say, 'Why do the firemen have to have a hall?' What's going to draw them there? Something has to be there beyond just the idea of fighting fires."

Policy-makers have always understood that you can't hold volunteers to the same standards as paid civil servants. Allowances for social and ceremonial spending of tax money, such as for parades, annual banquets and recreational facilities, are explicitly authorized in state law.

Certainly volunteer fire agencies elsewhere send members to conferences and buy their chiefs cars and have annual banquets. But Long Island chooses to do it all on a grander scale.

In Middle Island, commissioners bought matching handmade wool-and-cashmere business suits for themselves, all four chiefs, the board secretary, the treasurer and their lawyer. Each cost $925, along with a pair of $125 custom-made shirts and a $100 tie-and-pocket-square set.

"This way we all look the same when we go somewhere," Commissioner Marc Rosenfeld explained. Fellow commissioner Fox said that they consider the suits uniforms, which the law allows the district to pay for.

In East Meadow, officials bought five $2,500 and two $1,500 laptops for training committee members so they would no longer have to come to the firehouse to plan Power Point lessons for fellow volunteers.

In North Babylon, the fire company budgeted $222,000 for parades, drills, a chiefs' installation dinner, an annual banquet and other ceremonial events in 2003, records show. That's more than the total annual budget for most New York fire districts. It spent more than $100,000 on the dinner and banquet.

"Think about the number of people we have: You're comparing them against other departments that may have 50 members, 75," said North Babylon's president, Frank Obremski. "When you're talking 200 members, you're talking a big department."

A $43,855 banquet bill

A Long Island banquet usually costs taxpayers $90 to $100 per person and lasts for six hours. Some departments also book hotel rooms for some members to spend the night after the banquet, paid for through public donations to their annual fund drives.

Oceanside's February 2003 chiefs' installation dinner at the Uniondale Marriott was a fairly typical example. It opened with a cocktail hour featuring premium liquor at several open bars, hot hors d'oeuvres, a "Neptune's Feast" of fresh shellfish, a pork loin carving station and an "international cheese montage," according to the banquet order obtained by Newsday.

Later, there was a sit-down dinner for 490 people in the grand ballroom, featuring a choice of filet mignon, chicken cordon bleu or horseradish-crusted salmon in lemon-butter sauce. The evening finished up with dancing before a live band, chocolate-covered strawberries and Irish coffee from four stations scattered around the ballroom. The bill for the evening: $43,855.

Things are a little different upstate.

In Wilmington, McGreevy, the assistant chief, said his district spends $2,500 of its $109,000 budget on its annual banquet for about 75 people.

"We buy $300 worth of alcohol, and when it's gone, it's gone," he said. "After that, there's a cash bar."

For many young people who choose to join the fire service, the allure goes beyond the social aspects. Volunteering offers them free training in firefighting or emergency medicine, skills that can lead directly to health care and public safety jobs.

Each July, Long Island books more rooms for Baltimore's Firehouse Expo, a national training conference and trade show, than any other region, organizers said.

But Long Island officials also spend millions more sending their commissioners and chiefs for seminars at top tourist destinations, drawing criticism from state auditors.

"Nassau and Suffolk County fire districts' average amount spent per district, expense per conference and per attendee far exceeded those of Westchester and Rockland County districts," the state comptroller's office found in 2002.

Convention spending spree

Nassau officials spent almost six times as much traveling to conventions as those from Westchester, the report said, even though Nassau districts sent roughly the same number of people to the same number of events. Nassau officials opted for longer stays and more expensive meals, hotels and rental cars than their counterparts, according to the study.

Tax money frequently goes for premium hotel rooms, side trips and extra days at resorts and improper travel for spouses, according to a review of more than two dozen state audits and dozens more documents.

Massapequa fire officials spent more than $224,000 on trips over a 20-month period in 1998 and 1999, according to a state audit. In February of both years, officials attended seminars at a $130-a-night Orlando hotel on disaster management, and fire truck purchasing and maintenance, respectively.

Both years, they chose to stay 7 miles away at Walt Disney World's $422-a-night Lake Buena Vista Resort. In 1998, the audit said, five officials each rented their own car to drive to the conference hotel at a cost of $2,176. In 1999, seven of those in attendance rented cars, costing $2,286.

Massapequa Commissioner Michael Hanna took a $461-per-night suite at the resort for the truck conference. He justified his accommodations, saying his "room was used as a meeting room for all the people that attended." As for staying at the Disney resort, "It's only five minutes away" from the seminar site, Hanna said in a brief telephone interview.

An out-of-state emergency services salesman recalled the ribbing he took from several Long Island commissioners when he arrived at a California convention in a compact rental car; they all had booked Lincoln Town Cars.

"I deal with fire service all over the country, and the difference on Long Island is so dramatic, it's really uncomfortable a lot of the time," said the salesman, who asked not to be named because he still does business here. "I feel badly for the people who do this for the right reason, and I feel badly for the taxpayers getting gouged by those districts that don't care."

Officials offer a variety of justifications for choosing choice vacation spots for their training.

The Islip Fire District said it sent 11 dive team members plus two other people to Key Largo, Fla., in March 2004 because it was easier for teachers to see and correct mistakes there.

"The water is a lot clearer there than up here in the Great South Bay," said Commissioner Joseph De Blasio, one of the nonmembers who went, explaining he was working toward his own dive certification.

And the Suffolk fire chiefs' council, which organized the Bahamas seminars, said the all-inclusive trips to resorts or on cruise ships can be a better deal than many U.S. conferences.

Brentwood Commissioner Donald Spier, who attended the 2002 seminar along with then-Commissioner Donald Leun and at least two chiefs, acknowledged that tax money had paid for his travel but said he had paid for his wife. He said he had found it valuable a because the county fire chief's seminars were always worthwhile.

Courses have been taught by accredited instructors from the Suffolk County Fire Academy, which officials said their lawyers told them made it a legitimate training expense.

"We're approved to go to Baltimore, to the international, to the disaster convention ... And what about the ones in New Orleans and Las Vegas?" said Anderson, the former council president. "What's the difference?"

Getting 'money's worth'

There is another type of spending that fire officials call a training expense: tournament drill teams. Firefighters in about 45 Long Island districts compete by leaping off the back of speeding, specially modified racing vehicles to climb ladders or hook up hoses.

Only a small part of each department's membership can be on a racing team, and district spending on them has been a frequent target of auditors.

"It makes them committed. It makes them in good shape," said Islip Commissioner Benjamin Galletto, 72, who was on three state championship teams as a young man. "They train well. They get to know various types of hoses and ladders. I know some people don't see it, but it's a benefit. We've never had a complaint from anybody, and they pack them in at the tournaments."

In its quest for its first state championship since 1965, Islip fire officials spent more than $250,000 on its Wolves racing team from 2001 to 2003, flouting a warning from their own auditor that the spending seemed "inordinate."

In 2000, it paid $37,500 for a custom-built dragster called a "C" hose tender, records show. The next year it spent $72,128 on the drill team. In 2002, it spent $139,500 for a cream-white tractor-trailer to transport the racing vehicles to tracks around Long Island. The district says the tractor also pulls their fire-safety trailer.

In 2003, Islip paid $37,051 for engine work and racing tires and spent $15,329 on an electric-blue mobile locker room emblazoned with the Wolves logo (last year it was designated for general department use). It also bought $11,000 worth of Wolves T-shirts, jerseys, garment bags and Junior Wolves uniforms.

The Wolves captured the state title in August of that year at the New York State Motorized Drill in Ridge.

"I guess we got our money's worth," Galletto said.

Records show the district spent thousands more in taxpayer money celebrating the victory. Team members received championship jerseys, shirts and posters and a parade down Islip's Main Street to a party behind the firehouse where town and county officials delivered congratulations from a mobile stage while volunteers handed out free hot dogs, hamburgers, beer and soda.

Substantial incentives

State lawmakers have long recognized the value of volunteers' service by supporting benefits for them. A 1927 state law, for instance, gives their benevolent associations or departments 2 percent of all fire insurance premiums paid to companies based out of state. Long Island's firefighters received $10.2 million from this source in 2004, state records show. Departments must distribute it equally on benefits all members can share, including life insurance, refreshments and rec-room furniture. Benevolents, whose memberships include many former volunteers, can also spend their funds on death benefits and emergency grants for indigent members.

More recently, a variety of substantial monetary incentives -- property-tax breaks, supplemental life insurance and pension benefits -- have been added.

The biggest of these is the Length of Service Awards Program. A state law passed in 1988 and sweetened last year allows fire agencies, with voter approval, to establish their own pension programs for their members. All but about a dozen Long Island communities have them.

Volunteers who are 55 or older can receive as much as $30 a month for each year of active service, up to $1,200 a month. Local agencies may offer the benefit in the form of lump-sum payouts that could reach $200,000 for a single volunteer in coming years.

Under the program, fire districts also may buy life insurance policies for members and offer disability benefits.

Just answering alarms isn't necessary to earn credit toward these pensions. Volunteers must attend other events, such as drills, training, meetings and parades. A small number of Long Island firefighters earn pension credit that way while answering few or no calls for help, records show.

Costs more than projected

From the beginning, the program cost Long Island districts far more than the $7,000 to $10,000 a year its advocates had projected. The Hicksville Fire District, which has Long Island's biggest budget at $6.1 million, paid $750,000 into the program itself this year and set aside another $755,000 to pay anticipated claims against it.

But while some $250 million in taxes has been paid into the pensions statewide, the program's effectiveness as a recruitment and retention tool is unclear, a 2001 state comptroller's report found. After a brief spike in the first few years of the program, volunteer numbers statewide resumed their downward slide. The study suggested the pensions may do more to retain the oldest volunteers than to attract urgently needed younger ones.

Volunteer leaders have come to agree. So, prodded by them, the State Legislature has spent the past few years debating new incentives tailored to younger people.

In 2003, the Legislature passed a law allowing local governments to cut property taxes for volunteer firefighters by 10 percent. Some Nassau school boards are considering this month whether to grant the exemption, and a growing number of Suffolk school districts have signed on.

Health insurance on agenda

Tomorrow, a task force appointed by Gov. George Pataki, a volunteer fireman's son, will meet to explore offering another major firefighter incentive: health insurance.

The group is looking at perhaps joining existing state or local plans, said Edward Carpenter, a Sayville volunteer who is president of the Firemen's Association of the State of New York. He described what they had in mind as "like your basic Blue Cross/Blue Shield blue-collar health-care package."

In March, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), citing a volunteer crisis, proposed a new, $1,000 federal income tax credit for firefighters. Others, such as Suffolk's fire and rescue commissioner, Joe Williams, want to offer affordable housing programs and extra credit on civil-service exams.

Frank Nocerino, the state fire districts association treasurer, admits he doesn't know what incentives will be attractive enough to compensate for the high home costs and busy lives that are driving so many younger volunteers away.

"Honestly, I really don't know the answer anymore," he said. "... I hope people come up with the answer: Put a bag of money on the steps, and you join? I don't know. I really don't know. I don't think they have the answer, but we have to do something."

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