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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 11, 2010

Who’s protecting Guilderland from fire? Over 280 volunteers

By Anne Hayden

GUILDERLAND — Town residents feel secure that, if their home caught fire, someone would answer the call.

But many residents know little about their fire districts, or even which district serves them.

In a recession, when there is much talk of consolidating government functions to save funds, the leaders of volunteer firefighters in Guilderland are unanimous in supporting the current system.

Eight fire departments provide coverage for the town of Guilderland, and five of them — McKownville, Westmere, Guilderland, Guilderland Center, and Fort Hunter — focus solely on the town.

The McKownville, Westmere, and Guilderland firehouses are on Western Avenue, located within a 4.46 mile stretch. The Guilderland Center department is 3.4 miles from the Guilderland department, on School Road off of Route 146; the Fort Hunter firehouse is 3.25 miles from the Guilderland department, on Carman Road.

Although the departments in Guilderland are geographically clustered, members of each company — all of them volunteers — agree it is important to keep them separate, for multiple reasons. The combined budgets for the five departments located solely within the town — and excluding the village of Altamont — totals nearly $2.9 million.

While the six fire departments within Guilderland serve about 30,000 residents, they have a total of six firehouses, and two rescue rigs, eight pumper engines, six squad trucks, one engine tanker, one aerial tanker, one brush truck, and one pickup truck with a trailer. The neighboring city of Albany, serving a population of nearly 95,000, in a more compact area, has eight stations, and a total of two rescue rigs, eight pumper engines, four ladder trucks, one squad truck, and two Battalion Chief vehicles.

Response time and special abilities

John Keimer, commissioner of the Westmere Fire Department, said one of the most important factors for separate fire companies is that the ISO Rating System for fire departments helps determine the insurance cost for homes and businesses. The Insurance Services Office provides data, underwriting, and risk management services to insurers. The rating is directly affected by response time, Keimer said. If there was one central fire department in Guilderland, there would be a big controversy over location, Keimer said. Homes and businesses furthest from the station would likely have higher insurance premiums.

For Don Gaitor, chief of the Guilderland Fire Department, the biggest issue would be separating out special abilities. One fire department with one chief would not be enough to diversify the staff, said Gaitor. Separate departments also allow for the spreading out of equipment, which makes it more affordable, according to Gaitor. He agreed with Keimer about problems with response time, as well.

“There may be occasions where consolidation would make sense, but in Guilderland it would be a disservice to the public because of increased response time,” Gaitor said.

In McKownville, President Jim White believes camaraderie would suffer if there were any type of fire department consolidation.

“Camaraderie between volunteer members is a huge aspect, and you would lose that if the district became even bigger. You would not have the same sense of neighborhood,” White said. If a central fire department were located at one end of town, residents from the other end would be less likely to volunteer, said White.

Gaitor also thought location would pose a dilemma. Putting a central station in the middle of town might not make sense, he said, because it isn’t the most populous area, and it might not be familiar territory for some volunteers.

Fort Hunter’s president, Charles Hughes, said it isn’t just the camaraderie among volunteers in one department that’s essential, but the comradeship among the leaders of various departments, as well. He described an annual golf outing that Guilderland firefighters take, and said each year the past chiefs of each department get together for dinner.

“It’s like an old boys’ club,” said Hughes. The fellowship comes in handy when departments need to provide mutual aid, volunteers said. All of the departments have mutual aid agreements with at least one other local department, so, if a call comes in that requires more manpower or equipment than one department alone can provide, another department can send backup. Gaitor said neighboring departments have been doing more training sessions together in recent years, so that members all know each other, and know what equipment each department has, and how to use it.

Recruiting volunteers

During the day, when many of the volunteer firefighters are working their regular jobs, it can be difficult for one department to supply enough members for a call. In recent years, many departments have found it is harder to recruit volunteers than it was in the past.

According to the Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness, the number of volunteer firefighters has declined by 15,000 statewide in the past two decades. About 96,000 out of New York’s 114,000 firefighters are volunteers. State legislation has provided incentives for volunteers in the form of tax breaks and pensions.

“It would be naïve to say that any fire department does not face manpower issues. As things have changed, people are no longer as available during the day, and people don’t seem as interested in civic-mindedness,” Gaitor said. He said Guilderland actively recruits members, by holding open houses and other public events.

White said it was “absolutely hard” to find volunteers, but that McKownville was lucky enough to have at least 12 active members at a time from the University at Albany, and each student serves four years at a time. McKownville also holds open houses and sends out mass mailings, said White.

Fort Hunter has fortunately not seen any problems with recruiting volunteers, according to Hughes. He said the department typically gets four or five new members a year, and it puts out applications at all of its functions.

“We never turn anyone away,” Hughes said.

Sharing and budgeting

Departments share not just manpower, but equipment, according to Gaitor. For example, he said, Guilderland has an aerial pumper, which has the ability to send water to heights over 100 feet. Not every department in town has an aerial pumper in its fleet, so, if a call comes in to another department, and it is determined that an aerial pumper is necessary, Guilderland can send it out for use.

Not every department has the same equipment, or even the same amount of equipment, because the annual budgets vary widely. McKownville has an annual budget of $233,000, while Westmere has a yearly budget of $860,435.  The other departments fall somewhere in between.

The Altamont Fire Department, which also covers a large part of Guilderland, is funded differently than the other departments, because it is a village, and villages and cities by state law are required to provide fire protection. The Altamont Fire Department gets its funds through the village board as part of the village budget.

Currently, the taxation structure for the Altamont department is 55 percent for Guilderland and 45 percent for Altamont, although Altamont’s mayor said in October that should be assessed to see if Altamont could reduce its portion in the future. According to statistics from the National Fire Incident Reporting System, the Altamont department responded to 50 calls from 2005 to 2007, not including mutual aid.

Also by state law, towns are not allowed to provide fire protection as a municipal function. Fire protection in Guilderland, outside of Altamont, is provided through fire districts, which are overseen by a board of commissioners, that has the power to levy taxes. Ninety percent of the revenue for fire districts comes from property taxes, according to the Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness. The board of commissioners for each fire department votes on the annual budget. Most of the commissioners are volunteer firemen.

The annual budget, paid for by taxes, goes toward apparatus, tools, the station building, and the building’s operations, said Keimer. If there are extra expenses, the department will hold a fund-raiser; Westmere typically holds one major fund-raiser each year to appeal to the residents. The money raised pays for social nights to help build the camaraderie that is so important to the members.

In some situations, when a fire department has a major project involving hefty funding, a bond will be applied for. Westmere is planning to build a new $5.27 million firehouse, using a Firehouse Building Bond. If approved by a public vote on March 23, the project will result in a 24-cent-per-$1,000 tax increase to residents within the Westmere Fire District boundaries.

Though there are a variety of reasons that a new building is necessary, Keimer said the biggest motivation is safety, especially in the apparatus room. The vehicles, he said, would no longer fit through the existing bay doors, if the updated models get any larger. He said the district had discussed updating the firehouse since 2005, and that building a new one would be cheaper than upgrading the old firehouse.

Though taxes may seem high to some residents, department leaders maintain the cost would be higher if there were ever a consolidation. Gaitor said consolidation would lead to fewer volunteer firefighters, meaning the town would have to pay professional, full-time firefighters.

“Folks who are concerned about cost should consider volunteer verses non-volunteer. These volunteers spend many thousands of hours away from home and their loved ones out of a sense of duty, and they aren’t paid for it,” said Gaitor.

White, from McKownville, agreed with Gaitor. “The cost of labor is absolutely the highest cost in running a professionally staffed department, and that’s what you would have if you consolidated, because you would lose volunteers,” he said.

“These volunteer firefighters,” Gaitor concluded, “are some of the best people I have ever known.”

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