When talk turns to changing the way Long Island's fire service protects its 2.7 million residents, the debate is often cast in extremes: It's either keep the all-volunteer system just as it is, or replace the whole thing with paid, unionized firefighters and send taxes through the roof.

But across the United States, places like Long Island have found ways to improve service and preserve their traditions with less expensive steps.

In suburban Philadelphia, Whitpain Township hired four career firefighter/emergency medical technicians four years ago to backstop their volunteers during busy daytime hours.

Outside of Bellingham, Wash., volunteers in Whatcom County Fire District No. 2 work shifts at the firehouse on weekends and holidays to ensure engines leave within a minute of an alarm.

In the Washington, D.C., suburbs, 19 once-independent departments in Montgomery County, Md., operate under a county fire chief who decides where firehouses should be built and how many trucks are needed. When someone in Chevy Chase dials 911, a county dispatcher sends the nearest available engine, staffed by paid and volunteer firefighters, regardless of which department's territory the fire is in.

All are attempts to cope with the relentless turnover, weekday shortages of emergency workers and burgeoning ambulance calls that have put pressure on volunteers everywhere.

"Much of the volunteer fire service across the United States is currently in crisis," an International Association of Fire Chiefs report concluded last year. " ... Many volunteer departments in more populated areas are in a state of crisis and face a deep-seated struggle to provide adequate services."

Long Island is the last densely populated region in America served almost exclusively by volunteers, but the system here is showing signs of strain.

Though they are among the best-funded, best-trained and best-equipped in the nation, fire departments here are falling prey to many of the same problems that have plagued agencies nationwide.

"Was the volunteer fire service ever designed to do what Long Island fire departments are doing right now? I don't think so," said Gil Hanse, Babylon Town's director of emergency preparedness and a longtime volunteer.

"We're like a city. With the amount of people that we have and the service we're expected to provide, has it become a burden? Yes."

While almost three-quarters of country's fire departments are all-volunteer, they protect only 22.8 percent of the population because they are almost exclusively found in communities smaller than 25,000 people, according to a 2003 report by the National Fire Protection Association. More than a third of the nation's population -- including Long Beach and Garden City -- is protected by "combination" departments, staffed by a mix of paid and volunteer firefighters.

The number of all-paid agencies has steadily grown, protecting 45 percent of U.S. residents.

In its efforts to keep up, Long Island's more than $319 million-a-year volunteer system has become so expensive -- three times per resident what it costs for other Northeastern volunteer systems -- that some of its most loyal members and some local officials are saying it's time to take a hard look at where things are headed.

"We know the volunteers are fantastic and we're grateful and value their service," said Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi. "We know there's a problem and there's no proposed solution. ... We can't be afraid to talk about this stuff just because it's never been talked about before."

Nassau Assessor Harvey Levinson talks about changing state law to fund volunteer departments through townwide taxes, which would even out tax rates and give towns some measure of supervision over fire spending.

"The whole system is flawed and has to be changed," he said.

Stewart Manor Mayor Joseph Troiano wonders whether it's time to consolidate some departments.

"Someone once told me in a budget hearing that you can't put a price on safety," he said. "I said, 'You have to put a price on everything. Nobody gets a blank check.'"

Melville commissioners are investigating adding paid firefighters, while Terryville has begun calculating how much it might cost to "buddy up" with neighboring districts to hire fire crews. And the Jericho Fire District has gone so far as to build sleeping quarters into its new firehouse.

"Should Nassau County ever go paid," said Commissioner David Marmann, a New York City fire lieutenant, "that would be a perfect location for a paid company to be."

Many of its most ardent supporters, though, say the volunteer system delivers quality service that residents couldn't afford without volunteers' sacrifices.

"It's good for the community," said former New Hyde Park Commissioner Reid Sakowich, whose family ties to his fire department encompass four generations. "It's a good system and it works, and when something works, you support it 100 percent."

The Firemen's Association of the State of New York, the volunteers' lobbying group, has been circulating a report to state legislators -- sharply challenged by fire unions -- that estimates that replacing volunteers with paid firefighters would cost Long Island taxpayers $1.3 billion more a year than they pay today.

The report, which does not look at the cost of combination departments, assumes Long Island would need almost as many paid firefighters as it now has volunteers -- that the tenth-of-a-square-mile village of Stewart Manor, for example, would need 55 paid firefighters to replace its 45 volunteers. But national insurance standards say that one paid firefighter does the work of three volunteers.

For many advocates of change, "going paid" is the last thing they want to do to their fire departments. They point instead to the example of the Washington, D.C., suburbs, especially Montgomery and Prince Georges counties in Maryland, whose fire departments have experimented for decades with ways of marrying the best of the volunteer and paid services.

It has been more than 25 years since Montgomery placed its departments under county control, a step that volunteers had thwarted with a public referendum a decade before. Since then, the change has been nearly constant.

Today, Montgomery has about 1,000 union firefighters and 1,000 volunteers, half of whom regularly answer emergency calls. They train side by side and fight fires as equals under a volunteer chief. This year, though, a new paid county chief has been given authority over fire policy and operations, including equipment purchases and where firehouses are built.

"We're on -- hopefully -- the tail end of over 30 years of difficult transition," Tom Carr, the county's new chief, said. "... We're becoming standardized in everything we do, and that's powerful."

About a fourth of Montgomery volunteers commit to spend regular duty shifts at their firehouse to assure a fully staffed engine is always available.

The result is that residents there can count on getting an engine or ambulance within six minutes of their 911 call 80 percent of the time. Long Island ambulances responded in 6 minutes or less 35 percent of the time last year. Fire engines here reached the scene in 6 minutes or less 44 percent of the time.

At about $166 a resident, Montgomery County's system costs more than Long Island's, which comes to $136 a resident when county and town emergency costs here are included. Without such costs, which include independent ambulance companies, county fire academies and fire marshals, Long Islanders pay $113 per resident for their volunteer departments.

The combination system in Prince Georges County is less expensive than Long Island at about $83 per resident. There, about 1,200 volunteers divide response duties with just over 700 paid firefighters.

Paid crews cover most of the 44 firehouses in Prince Georges during the day and volunteers are in charge nights and weekends. Volunteers are far more dominant there -- the original volunteer departments still own most of the firehouses and heavy apparatus, while the county supplies the ambulances and paid firefighters and pays for maintenance, upkeep and administration.

Struggle for pride

Even after more than 25 years, both counties still have to expend a lot of management energy making sure everyone gets along. Volunteers have been known to taunt union guys as "paid maids" or refuse to allow them on the fire trucks, and paid firefighters sometimes challenge volunteers' skills. In one Prince George's station, volunteers kicked out a paid firefighter, saying he was short on "pride" in their mission.

Around the country, as overwhelmed volunteers hand some of their duties over to paid firefighters, that struggle for pride has become a familiar one. It is rarely painless.

"The real question is, who are we attempting to satisfy? ... Is the customer actually the public or is it the members of the department?" asked Larry Curl, ex-chief of the 500-member Wayne Township, Ind., department that once billed itself as the world's largest volunteer fire agency.

Curl himself was embroiled in a bitter standoff with the township, refusing to hand over the keys to the fire trucks after his suburban Indianapolis department was reorganized as a combination agency six years ago. Eventually, Curl backed down and he later told fellow chiefs that he believed combination departments were "the wave of the future." The government's first step was to shed millions of dollars' worth of trucks.

"We thought we were doing everything right, but there was no guarantee on the services we were providing," Curl said in a telephone seminar sponsored by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, which has paid and volunteer members.

Since then, the department's volunteer membership has shrunk to just 50 after the new administration began requiring them to meet training standards and serve a minimum of 40 hours each month, said Deputy Chief Rick Batza.

In New York, senior state fire officials and the Professional Firefighters Association, which represents 25,000 unionized firefighters, issued a 1987 report recommending combination departments modeled after Washington's suburbs as the most economical means of providing more reliable service. By last year, the federal government listed 45 New York fire departments as partly paid, including a dozen in Westchester County.

Recently, officials throughout the state -- from Westchester County to the suburbs of Utica, Binghamton and Buffalo -- have been urging more regional coordination, though they have yet to see results.

But many of those familiar with Long Island traditions say residents here prefer the more personal touch of local agencies, even if they cost more.

"Certainly the volunteers want their own identity, but that is also true of the citizenry, who believe that if there was a consolidation and they had a problem that the response times for them would be longer," said state Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), a sponsor over the years of laws providing benefits to volunteers. "... We can't get consolidation of school districts when it makes all the sense in the world both fiscally and educationally ... If anyone is thinking of a countywide [fire and ambulance] system, hell would freeze over quicker."

Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, said he wasn't optimistic about his union's prospects of supplanting Long Island volunteers.

"I can't ignore that they are well-funded, they have a relationship in their communities and they're ... recognized as a political force, whether real or perceived," Schaitberger said.

No guarantees

That power was on display in Babylon Town in the late 1990s. Amid growing concern about volunteer shortages, Babylon civic groups asked the town to explore merging its 11 volunteer departments into a single paid agency.

The Joint Civic and Taxpayers Council figured they would need just three of Babylon's 29 firehouses, and the $20 million those departments spend could be put into hiring firefighters.

To meet national insurance standards, though, a townwide department would need at least seven firehouses in order to have an engine within 11/2 miles of all parts of town. Rough estimates based on New York City costs suggest that staffing each of those stations with a paid five-person crew would surpass $35 million, although staffing at Montgomery County levels would cost just over $21 million.

The town told the group their idea was too expensive.

"All they did was get angry at us for bringing the issue up," Carolyn Mammarella, the council's former president, said of the firefighters. "The volunteers look at it as a personal attack."

At $94 per person in 2003, Babylon's volunteer agencies cost its residents as much as the average combination department in the Northeast. But on 744 occasions that year, they were unable to respond to medical alarms, forcing residents to wait as long as 39 minutes for some other agency to pick up the call, Suffolk records show.

"How many lives do we give up because we choose to depend on volunteer firemen and EMTs coming?" Mammarella asked.

"You have multiple layers of equipment virtually sitting next door to each other, from West Babylon to Lindenhurst, but there are no guarantees."

Richard Vella, president of the Babylon fire chiefs' council, said there is no need to consolidate firehouses in the town because no one has trouble getting their fire trucks out, and they're studying ways to improve ambulance service. One option, he said, is pooling their volunteers and assigning them to duty shifts.

"We're working on it," Vella said. "We're not standing here with our feet stuck in the mud."

Fire service leaders have tended to be more open to experimentation in emergency medical service, the area placing the greatest burden on volunteers and the one that is less rooted in department traditions.

Nassau's fire commission has authorized the first systematic study that anyone can remember of the county's fragmented emergency medical system.

"The concern is really driven by the volume," said Peter Williams, the former commission chairman. "It keeps going up and up and up. That taps a lot of resources."

In Port Washington, the fire department's ambulance volunteers already serve duty shifts at its Harbor Road station.

In Suffolk, David Brenner, a longtime Holbrook volunteer and chairman of the county Regional Emergency Medical Services Council, said he believes that duty shifts and regional coordination could help save the volunteer system. If each Suffolk EMT pledged to work one 12-hour shift every 45 days, there could be 62 ambulances on the road around the clock ready to respond without regard to agency boundaries, providing faster, more reliable service.

"As a volunteer, I'd love to do this, to be on the road for 12 hours, guaranteeing I'm going to be responding to any call near my sector," he said. "I don't volunteer to sit waiting for a call, watching cartoons. I want to go. That's why we volunteer."

Deep-seated tensions

But discussions like that, whenever they touch on the prerogatives of the volunteers, tend to be fraught with the tension that only deep feelings and lifelong commitments can stir.

For instance, when doubts about the future of the Manhasset-Lakeville Fire Department were raised by a longtime volunteer in newspaper ads in 2003, the department scoffed at his accusations and forbade members to speak to him about them. But residents persuaded commissioners to appoint a study committee because it was, in the words of its chairman, Ret. Adm. Paul Early, "too important to be ignored, trivialized or swept under the rug."

John Keitz -- a former mayor of Plandome Heights, which is protected by the department -- said that kind of scrutiny is always a delicate business, but necessary.

"They're your friends and neighbors, and people don't want to get their friends and neighbors mad at them ... " Keitz said. "But how are we going to get anywhere if we don't talk about it?"

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