In the fall of 2003, a longtime Manhasset volunteer firefighter and businessman placed a startling advertisement in the local newspaper.
"Volunteerism has been stretched to the breaking point," wrote Brian Kenny, a volunteer since 1960. It was time, he argued, to "get past the emotional trap of tradition and brotherhood," time for the Manhasset-Lakeville Fire District to start hiring firefighters and paramedics.
The ad sparked outrage and denunciations from volunteers.
But, the truth was, department members it had hired to maintain its firehouses were already being sent on calls when too few volunteers showed up.
It's just another example of how Long Island's volunteer fire service is becoming a little less volunteer every day. Payroll, civil service and alarm records confirm what many firefighters have been saying: Fire agencies in Nassau and Suffolk are hiring ever-growing numbers of employees to do jobs volunteers once did.
Most fire employees are paid to mop the floor, open the mail and tend the trucks. But, officially or not, many now also are expected to handle the volunteers' core firefighting and medical duties if needed, getting around civil service rules.
At least 19 agencies also are now officially hiring paid emergency medical technicians because they admit that their members can't keep up with the demands on them.
Today, Long Island fire agencies employ at least 1,800 people, an average of 10 full- and part-time workers for each fire agency, at a cost of more than $52 million annually. Their numbers are small next to the 20,000 volunteers in Nassau and Suffolk, but they are becoming indispensable. Only one in six fire agencies still function as purely volunteer organizations with no paid staff.
Neither the wellspring of support for firefighters everywhere after the Sept. 11 attacks nor vigorous public-service ad campaigns seeking new recruits have done much to increase volunteer ranks, especially in more affluent fire districts where the high cost of homes has driven out young, would-be volunteers. The rise in two-income and commuter families also has changed the equation.
"I had two kids within my first year of marriage -- I was working overtime, and my wife was working, so I had to care for the kids while she was at work," said Michael Benfante, 34, a former North Patchogue firefighter, explaining why he quit recently. "So there really wasn't much time."
A shifting landscape
In Manhasset, a committee appointed by the district as a result of Kenny's ad later acknowledged a weekday volunteer shortage and urged hiring a "nucleus" of firefighters and emergency medical technicians to fill the gap. The committee even had the idea that the paid custodians now stationed in each of the five firehouses, who already answered some fire and medical calls, should instead be clustered in one firehouse each weekday.
"If there's a fire, they have a full truck complement right there," said Paul Early, the chairman. The district took that advice, and custodians who are firefighters now roll together on calls.
Officials in other districts across Long Island also are struggling to negotiate a shifting landscape, patching together reliable protection with a crazy-quilt of hiring while at the same time trying to preserve the "all-volunteer" system and its traditions.
"There's no contradiction there at all," said Frank Nocerino, treasurer of the state fire districts' association and a North Massapequa commissioner.
He said whenever any of North Massapequa's six employees answers a call, "they have to punch out and then they've got to punch back in ... We're hiring people because we've got work to do. We've got to keep up the grounds, the electrical, the mechanical."
In 2001 Terryville commissioners made no bones about why they were hiring a dozen custodians; they were there to answer medical calls when needed. Commissioners brushed off volunteers' complaints that this would be a fatal blow to their morale.
"This ain't the Moose or the Elks, this is to protect life and property," Terryville Chairman William Theis said then. "They weren't coming out."
Theis said he now believes it's time to start hiring firefighters, too.
Melville Commissioner Salvatore Silvestri said his district is gathering information on how it might add some paid firefighters.
"Even now we discuss among ourselves when is the time to pull the trigger, and how do you pull the trigger?" he said. " ... Will you potentially lose some solid volunteers? I don't know, and those are things that we have to face here. But the calls have to be answered. The calls must be answered."
But for now the taboo against hiring firefighters holds.
For 99 of its 100 years, the Roslyn Highlands fire company protected its residents without a single employee. By 2003, President James McCann proudly pointed out, his volunteers had answered 2,140 alarms and managed two fire stations and all their equipment. But last year they gave in to the pressures, hiring a Highlands life member to work as a part-time cleaner.
"When there is a fire alarm now," McCann said, "he goes."
The muddying of the lines between volunteers and paid employees has led some critics to say it's time for most Long Island agencies to stop calling themselves all-volunteer.
"There's a fundamental dishonesty that is being perpetrated here," said Jay Gusler, former firefighters' union president in Long Beach, one of only two Long Island communities partly staffed by crews of paid firefighters. "... I think the primary motivation is to be able to cling to that volunteer banner, that here's the wonderful guys who do it for pride, not for a paycheck."
Long Island is going through a process that public safety experts have documented throughout the country for decades, said Les Adams, a Maryland consultant who has been an officer in both paid and volunteer departments.
"To be honest, this is a textbook transition," he said. ".. It generally goes through certain phases, starting with, for example, custodians and drivers and leading to an officially recognized combination [paid and volunteer] fire department."
Burnout is a driving force in the process, and it goes beyond responding to alarms.
Bill Reilly recalled that when he joined the West Babylon Fire Department as a teenager in 1960, he got his first emergency medical certification after eight hours of training. Today, volunteers need 150 classroom hours and refreshers every three years. Firefighters, he said, must complete 18 classes at the county fire academy and spend six evenings a month at the firehouse.
"Firefighters are doing what would have been 10 years of service in two or three years," Reilly said. "So we lose them."
The shortage is felt most keenly during the workday. Almost two-thirds of all emergency calls come in between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., but, on weekdays, a third fewer volunteers respond during those hours than during the evening, state and county incident reports show.
Departments are coping in a variety of ways. Some, such as Manhasset-Lakeville, are cutting back on the service they provide. The district pulled out of the county 911 service during weekday hours for medical calls two years ago, leaving the job to county police ambulances.
Most are relying more heavily on older members, officials said. A 2003 survey by Suffolk County estimated that 41 percent of firefighters are more than 45 years old.
"During the daytime, I make all the calls, because we're short of firemen," said George Caracost, 82, the longtime Island Park commissioner and ex-chief who once broke in former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato as a firefighter. "Technically, I'm not allowed to go inside the building, but during the daytime, who's going to see it?"
Other agencies, especially village departments, depend on members on municipal payrolls. Long Island's towns, villages, county agencies and school districts employ hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers, records show, and commonly allow them to answer alarms during working hours.
More civil service hires
But the biggest change spurred by the pressures on fire agencies has been the increase in their payrolls.
In 1996, Suffolk County listed 734 civil service employees working for fire districts on a full- or part-time basis. By last year, that number had risen to 1,126 positions, a 53 percent jump.
Records show fire districts tend to hire people into the lowest-rung job titles requiring no special qualifications or else impose a residency requirement that allows them to give preference to their own members, even for jobs that require civil service tests.
Some fire agencies expect more of their employees than their job titles might suggest.
When the Plainview Fire Department placed an ad for a firehouse maintainer in a firefighters' newspaper, it noted that in addition to janitorial skills, "Applicant must be an interior structural firefighter, EMT or better," with a valid driver's license. Plainview's superintendent, Eric Burel, said the department simply wanted employees with the right background. He would not say whether any were going on calls.
"What they do on their own time, after they punch out, is their business," he said. "I don't monitor them."
Islip commissioners last year voted to hire one of their volunteers as a "Custodial Worker I" provided that he "obtain his EMT certification ASAP ... Upon certification, he will respond to rescue calls," according to board minutes.
'Why hire somebody else?'
Islip Commissioner Benjamin Galletto said the district hired two of its own department members to answer medical calls. He said it was better than creating jobs for EMTs and hiring off the county's civil service list.
"They were in our department already, so why hire somebody else?" he said. "They don't go out on mutual-aid calls ... We use them for our own taxpayers in our district."
A spot check of alarm books from several districts for 2001, 2002 and last year showed a pattern of firehouse staff answering both medical and fire alarms during regular working hours. Of those districts, Brentwood, one of the busiest on Long Island, made the most use of those employees to respond to fire calls.
Brentwood's paid district superintendent answered 27 fire alarms in January 2002, while a firehouse attendant answered 45 calls. A clerk-typist went to 30 fire calls, and a custodian answered 60, driving the fire truck on 18 of them.
Brentwood fire Commissioner Donald Spier said his agency's policy mirrored that of his own former private employer, which used to let him him leave work to answer daytime alarms.
But one veteran Brentwood member who declined to be identified for fear of alienating his colleagues said it was more dire than that; employees were covering calls because the department had difficulty mustering volunteer crews. Another said the odds of an engine leaving the firehouse with a crew of five or six were "the luck of the draw."
New Hyde Park doesn't worry about having a full crew on its engines, sending them out with only two people aboard, meeting the rest of the volunteers at the scene. It patches its weekday crews together with municipal employees from village hall across the street, volunteers who work at supportive local businesses and several of its own firehouse workers who regularly drive the trucks.
While the district has had to hire EMTs to deal with the glut of medical calls, this combination of tactics helped them get an engine to fire calls faster than any department on Long Island last year, records show.
"It's a good system," said former fire Commissioner Reid Sakowich, "and it works."
But Gusler, the former Long Beach fire union president, scoffs at districts' rationales for filling out fire crews with employees.
"We're talking about firefighters," he said. "These people are hired for that reason. They just refuse to call them firefighters."
Working around rules
There are many reasons fire agencies want to avoid calling their employees firefighters or EMTs.
It would limit whom they could hire. Labor laws would ban the hiring of their own members into such jobs, and candidates would have to be selected from competitive civil service test lists.
It would add expense. A firefighting custodian is much less expensive than a bona fide firefighter, who is entitled to more generous disability and pension programs.
It also would force agencies that depend on member pride to publicly admit they could no longer protect the community by themselves. Under state law, fire districts can't hire firefighters without holding public hearings first.
No such rule pertains to EMTs, however. And with emergency medical calls making up two-thirds of the burden these days, officials' resistance to hiring full-fledged EMTs has crumbled. At least 15 Suffolk agencies and at least four in Nassau now have them on their payrolls. Terryville has converted its staff of ambulance-riding custodians to 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week paramedics.
Hiring emergency medical technicians is one thing, but hiring firefighters is another. Fighting fires is why the fire departments came into being, and it remains the heart of their identity.
"We've always put the fires out," said Roger Putnam, an East Northport volunteer and president of the Suffolk County Volunteer Firemen's Association. "... There's a lot of pride in being a volunteer fireman, and if you knew you had guys that were paid on the clock, sitting there, just waiting for fire calls, it kind of hurts a little bit ... That kind of discourages the whole idea of the volunteer system."
Stacey Altherr contributed to this story.