The challenges of running a volunteer fire department — the budget constraints, cancer risks and difficulty recruiting young people — highlighted a meeting of fire officials Saturday in Albertson.
State fire officials emphasized the problems of keeping up with the changing landscape of volunteer firefighting, as they briefed about 75 local first responders on state legislative priorities.
Steven Klein, president of the Firemen's Association of the State of New York, noted that emergency medical service work constitutes the majority of calls answered by volunteer fire departments on Long Island.
But these departments are prevented by law from recovering the expenses of EMS service by billing people's insurance companies or government insurance provided, such as Medicare or Medicaid, he said. The costs are borne by taxpayers and donations, he said.
The fire association is asking the State Legislature to allow volunteer departments, which are spread across Long Island, to bill for these services. Klein noted that commercial ambulance services and stand-alone volunteer ambulance corps are permitted to bill for such services.
Klein noted that many volunteer departments are suffering budget constraints, and that their lifesaving abilities could be compromised without this law.
"They cannot function in the future without this bill," said Assemb.Michael LiPetri (R-South Farmingdale), one of a handful of legislators attending the meeting hosted by the Albertson Fire Department. "Our EMS crews are doing the same job as those who can bill. We should be getting that money recovered and we're not."
Opponents of the bill, which has languished for years in the legislature, say it could prompt insurance companies to raise premiums or increase the burden on taxpayer funded Medicare and Medicaid programs.
Thomas McDonough, vice chairman of the group's legislative committee, talked about the increasing cancer risks that come with firefighting. He said the association supports legislation to prohibit the sale of upholstered furniture containing certain flame-retardant chemicals, which he said release cancer-causing agents when they burn.
"This stuff is killing us, and it is killing the people who are trapped in these [burning] homes," McDonough said.
In addition, he said, the group supports expanding the types of cancers covered under insurance for firefighters, such as thyroid and testicular cancer.
"I had thyroid cancer," said McDonough, a former chief of the Port Washington Fire Department. "I'm a thyroid cancer survivor. It's not covered."
State Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford) said firefighters are facing a growing number of health threats in their jobs.
"The environment is getting worse," Brooks said. Meanwhile, he added, "The manpower is going down and the demands are going up."
The firefighters at the meeting were clearly among the elders of Island departments, and they talked about the difficulty of recruiting young people into the field.
Pointing to the high costs of living on Long Island, Klein said the government could offer recruits some relief with their mortgages or property taxes.
Another suggestion was providing an incentive to high school students by offering them some sort of credit to train with the fire department, McDonough said. That, he said, would help create a pathway for young people to enter firefighting.