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Coronavirus threatens LOSAP benefits for some volunteer firefighters

Commack Fire District chairman Patrick Fazio said the

Commack Fire District chairman Patrick Fazio said the department chief and the board of commissioners have asked members to "use their judgment" to decide whether they can go on calls safely. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Precautions to protect vulnerable volunteer firefighters from COVID-19 could lessen some retirement benefits for those going on fewer calls during the pandemic, according to fire officials.

Some fire departments are asking older volunteers or those with underlying health conditions — those most likely to suffer serious medical problems or death from the coronavirus — to stay home. Volunteers are generally required under state law to go on a minimum number of calls to earn retirement benefits in a given year.

“We don’t want anyone to be penalized because we have a virus that’s attacking our elderly,” said Commack Fire District chairman Patrick Fazio.

Fazio said the Commack Fire Department chief and the board of commissioners have put firehouses on standby to limit the number of volunteers on duty at any given time as part of social distancing. They have asked members to “use their judgment” to determine whether they can go on calls safely in light of their age or underlying conditions.

“These guys, they’re not saying they won’t step up,” Fazio said. “We’re asking them to step down and not really be proactive if they have underlying conditions.”

Many volunteer fire departments have established a retirement benefits program through a local sponsor — a fire district or municipality — called a Length of Service Award Program, or LOSAP, that generally pays a fixed amount to volunteers when they reach a certain age based on years of service. The program is funded by tax levies that are usually invested, which can also become an issue when the market is down, depending on how the sponsor invests the money.

Individual LOSAP programs vary but must follow state law that requires volunteers to earn 50 points in a given year to receive retirement credit. To earn enough points, the volunteers generally must go on a minimum number of calls, participate in meetings and train during the year.

Typically, LOSAP programs offer retirees a fixed benefit of $20 per month for each year of credited service.

Baldwin Fire District chairman Michael McDermott said the issue is a hot topic among fire commissioners on Long Island.

“Everybody’s concerned about it,” McDermott said, adding that firefighters have to decide for themselves whether they should avoid going on calls because they may have a medical history that puts them at risk because of the virus.

“We can’t hold it against them because they’re concerned or nervous or at home taking care of their own families,” McDermott said.

Edward Holohan, president of Penflex Inc., a Latham, New York-based actuarial firm used by many fire districts for LOSAP, said COVID-19 has “really thrown a wrench into the works here in terms of how they credit things.”

“A lot of fire stations are closed so that the meetings and the drills, the training is being canceled and they’re really limiting which of the volunteers can go to calls,” Holohan said.

While many fire districts have moved online for meetings and some training, getting credit for going on calls means being on the call physically.

Holohan said he’s working with the nonprofit Association of Fire Districts of the State of New York to craft proposed state legislation that would allow volunteers who don’t go on calls during the pandemic to earn call credit based on their past records.

The proposal would benefit only those volunteers who were active and would have likely earned the credit were it not for firehouse closures and limits on who could go on calls because of the threat of COVID-19, Holohan said. 

For those volunteers, “we’re just going to give them credit, for those activities as if they actually responded,” Holohan said of the proposal.