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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 18, 2010

Consolidation may well serve both the citizenry and firefighters

Last June, 21 people cast their ballots in a Guilderland Center Fire District vote to bond a $400,000 fire truck. The vote was 17 to 4.

Low turnout for fire district votes is common in New York State. An example from the Office of Fire Prevention and Control describes a bond vote in 2000, to finance the most expensive firehouse on Long Island, which received only 242 votes — just 2 percent of the fire district’s population — and 138 of the votes came from department members or relatives.

A report by the state’s Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness says 68 voters approved a $3.2 million firehouse in Greece, N.Y. and that much of the area covered by the new firehouse is within one-and-a-half miles of other firehouses.

Statewide in 2006, according to the commission, $1.5 billion was spent on fire protection. That’s a lot of money being spent by units of government that few people follow.

We’re doing our best as a newspaper to keep voters informed about a proposal by the Westmere Fire District to build a new $5.27 million firehouse. We ran a front-page story about the proposal on Jan. 21 and followed up with coverage at a zoning board meeting. The fire district is publicizing its March vote, too, and is holding a public forum at the firehouse on Thursday, Feb. 25, at 7 p.m.

The Westmere fire district, in the eastern part of Guilderland, covers 12 square miles, including over 2,700 homes, eight major apartment complexes, three schools, four churches, and Crossgates Mall. We urge district residents to attend the forum and find out about the project. You need to do your part by being informed, and voting.

At a time when many citizens are complaining about high taxes, too few are informed about the layers of government that serve them. Fire protection is a good example. In New York State, cities and villages are required to provide fire protection, typically through a municipal department. That means, in our coverage area, the fire departments in the villages of Altamont and Voorheesville must get their funds through the village board as part of the village budget.

Towns, by state law, are not allowed to provide fire protection as a municipal function. Fire protection in the towns we cover — Guilderland, New Scotland, and the Hilltowns — is provided through fire districts, separate units of local government overseen by an elected board of commissioners.  The fire district system was set up by the state legislature in 1932. Fire districts get over 90 percent of their revenue from property taxes, according to the Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness.

The commission also reports that the number of volunteer firefighters — like those who staff the departments in our coverage area — has declined by 15,000 in the past two decades. Because of this, the state legislature has enacted various incentive programs, such as property tax credits and a pension-like program for volunteers.

Over the same two decades, according to National Fire Protection Association, the number of reported fires across the country has fallen dramatically, by 56 percent, from 3.3 million in 1977 to 1.5 million in 2008. At the same time, the population of the United States grew by 38 percent, meaning the rate of fires per 1,000 population fell 68 percent. Also at the same time, the death toll from fires has fallen 55 percent. (The only spike in this downward trend is in 2001, because of the deaths from the terrorists’ attacks on Sept. 11.)

What is keeping fire departments busy these days as fire calls have decreased is the increase in medical aid calls. Almost two-thirds of fire department responses in 2008 were medical aid calls, which have more than tripled since 1980. Fires accounted for only 6 percent of all fire department responses in 2008, compared to 28 percent in 1980.

These trends are evident locally. This week, village reporter Philippa Stasiuk gathered data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System, part of the federal Department on Homeland Security, on responses by the New Salem fire district and the Voorheesville fire department for 2007, the most recent year for which data was available. Neither company responded to a building fire that year. New Salem, with 17 fire-related responses, was involved in five controlled burns and five vehicle accident cleanups while Voorheesville, with 21 responses, was involved in one accident cleanup and a gas or carbon monoxide leak.

Both of those companies are likely responding to dozens of medical aid calls, triggered by the 911 system.

This is relevant because the Voorheesville department is eager to buy a new fire truck. When fire Chief Frank Papa first made the request last summer, it was turned down by the village board. Then, the Voorheesville department planned to apply, along with the New Salem fire district, through the State Department’s Local Government Efficiency program, for funds to pay for 90 percent of the $360,000 cost of a new truck.

The point of the program is to save taxpayers money by allowing local governments to share resources.  However, Bill Gruss, New Salem’s fire chief, said his district would not benefit much. “Other than mutual aid, we’ll get nothing out of it; we’re our own department,” Gruss said. He also said, “Everyone wants a new truck. Two years ago, we bought a used truck off of Onesquethaw. We repainted it, re-lettered it, and it was good to go.” We appreciate his honesty.

 Gruss suggested the village — which covers just two square miles and has fewer than 3,000 residents — could contract with the New Salem district for protection. The New Salem district, which covers 25 square miles and serves 4,500 people, surrounds the village of Voorheesville. “We get calls and we’re already driving right through the village,” said Gruss.

At last night’s New Scotland Town Board meeting, representatives from the Voorheesville fire department, seeking support from the board, said New Salem would not be part of the grant.

While fire departments take a great deal of rightful pride in their autonomy and history — Voorheesville’s was founded over a century ago, in 1902 — now would be a good time for all of our fire departments to see if they could share equipment or even consolidate.

In January, the town of North Greenbush and the hamlet of Defreestville consolidated their fire-protection services after getting an efficiency grant that allowed the two to study how a consolidation could improve those services. The Department of State estimated that North Greenbush would increase its yearly fire protection tax rate by 2 percent as opposed to the projected 3 percent, and residents in the DeFreestville fire district would reduce their rate by 40 percent, or $148 on a property assessed at $100,000.

Last year, New York estimated that the 24 implementation grants it awarded would produce 10-year savings of $106 million, from a $9 million investment.

Voorheesville’s budget for the fire department, including insurance and payments for the Length of Service Award Program, was $109,380, or 8.5 percent of the 2009-10 budget.

“When you have a village this small, that hurts economically, but we need to provide proper protection to residents of the village,” Papa told our reporter. “That’s what the chief does. You have to look out for the residents of the village.”

We admire Papa not just for his years of service, but also for his going to bat for his department. But we urge him and all of our government leaders to look at the big picture: See where shared services can work effectively. Not only would taxpayers’ money be saved but the pool of volunteers would be bigger if departments were able to consolidate. In areas where firehouses are close together and calls for fires are few, consolidation may well serve both the citizenry and the firefighters.

“Volunteer Fire Departments are, when the alarm goes off, almost the only example of enthusiastic unselfishness to be seen in this land,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in his novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. “They rush to the rescue of any human being, and count not the cost.”

That kind of dedication deserves our admiration and support. The vast majority of New York’s firefighters — 96,000 out of 114,000 — are volunteers. But we, as New Yorkers, with our government billions of dollars in debt, have to count the costs to keep the systems we care about functional. Schools and hospitals and social services will all be forced to make cuts in the coming years. If we can consolidate to have our firehouses run more efficiently, wouldn’t that be a worthwhile endeavor?

These concerns are not new. In 1984, the National Fire Protection Association wrote in the Fire Almanac, “The fire service and fire protection community in America have no choice but to find more cost effective approaches to delivering fire safety to the public.”

A quarter of a century later, it is time to act.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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