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Fire volunteers feeling the heat; Comptroller report urges companies to consider mergers as ranks thin out

When Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz urged the area's multitude of volunteer fire companies to consider mergers, his political brethren mostly kept their distance.

Turns out, Poloncarz wasn't as alone as it first seemed. A lot of volunteer firefighters are thinking the same thing.

Stressed by their relentlessly thinning ranks, the increasing demands of an already exacting job and a sour economy that is prompting a hard look at every cent they spend, some volunteers, for the first time, openly agree.

"What's changing are the times, and we can't control that," said Steve Fialkowski, who said he has responded to 5,700 calls during his time as a volunteer firefighter in one of Cheektowaga's 10 fire districts.

Make no mistake: Long accustomed to independence, volunteers resent outsiders -- particularly politicians -- telling them their business. And plenty are still happy with things as they are.

But a weary resignation seems to have crept in as well, an acceptance that the status quo is now just too strained to survive.

Should some fire companies be townwide? Should mergers occur? Is it time to use a handful of paid firefighters in companies where volunteers are hard to come by?

Could be, Fialkowski said.

"We have to keep an open mind. We need to do what's best for the community," he said.

Fire companies do a good job of policing themselves when it comes to spending and saving lives, said Edward Kulpa, president of Bowmansville Fire District. But he, too, sees areas of the county where the ranks of volunteers are dwindling, and said something must be done to keep the system operating.

"It's worth looking at," he said. "You have to be cooperative. There's always two sides to any story. Hopefully, you find a middle."

At Erie County Fire Wire, a Web site for firefighters, downsizing is the hottest topic.

"A lot of them [posters] are for it," said Mike Vanderlaan, the former North Carolina firefighter who runs the site.

Even the head of the Erie County Fire District Officers Association thinks consolidations are probably inevitable.

"What I see happening is in 10, 15 years [they will consolidate]," said John R. Wicka, the association's president and a commissioner with Lake View Fire Department. "But it's going to happen within. If it comes from outside, it will be a disaster."

>Financial problems

Not long ago, the suggestion that volunteer fire departments consider consolidations, or any change at all, would have created an unbreachable wall of fiery criticism from the "vollies," as they are sometimes called.

But despite their tradition of political clout, volunteer firefighters have been under increased scrutiny lately from outsiders.

Much of it is financial, and it's not hard to understand why.

The Poloncarz report released Wednesday found total costs for the county's 93 volunteer fire companies rising fast -- up 36 percent from 2000 alone.

Yet, the number of fires continues to decline nationally, statewide and locally.

In New York, the number of fires dropped by nearly half between 1988 and 2007, to 124,829. Emergency medical service calls, meanwhile, reached 2.5 million (including New York City) the same year.

Locally, the trend is similar.

Consider Clarence. The price the town pays for firefighting services has increased by almost 130 percent in the last seven or so years, from $1.37 million in 2002 to $3.13 million in 2009.

Yet fire calls are relatively few. For instance, the Harris Hill Fire Department answered 624 calls in 2008, but only 32 were for fires. Of those, six involved structures, four involved vehicles, and 22 were "miscellaneous," according to the Amherst Central Fire Alarm Office.

There were 354 EMS-related, 54 for vehicle accidents and 183 listed as miscellaneous.

Former Amherst Supervisor Satish Mohan also forced a re-examination of budgets for the town's nine fire departments, concerned by ever-rising costs even as fire calls dropped.

According to Amherst Central Alarm statistics, total calls for service dropped nearly 10 percent between 2006 and last year, to 1,161. The office primarily handles calls in Amherst, Clarence, Akron and Newstead.

During that period, fire calls dropped nearly 23 percent, while EMS calls jumped 84 percent, the statistics show.

Yet big-ticket items like new fire trucks and sometimes sumptuous new fire halls drive up costs, critics and even firefighters themselves say.

>Difficulty recruiting

Still, it's cheaper than switching to all-paid departments, volunteer firefighters note.

And firefighters find the criticism from outsiders both upsetting and yet another hurdle to recruiting new members.

Who needs that kind of grief for a job that is both unpaid and potentially dangerous, they say.

Cheektowaga's Fialkowski recalls all that he missed -- dinners and other family time over the years -- to answer calls. On top of that, it takes hundreds of hours in required training -- 26 weeks several hours a week just for the basics -- plus constant training year-round.

That partially explains why the number of volunteers continues to fall. State officials last week said comparative numbers were not readily available, but a 2005 USA Today article pegged the drop-off in New York State at roughly one-third over the previous 15 years.

The exodus over the years of young adults from Western New York is one problem, Fialkowski said. So is the nature of the life of those who are still here.

"These days, [young] people go to college, or they're working two jobs," he said. "They don't have the time."

In fact, about 30 percent of the volunteer firefighters in Erie County are over 50 years of age, a 1998 state report on recruitment found.

"It's so hard to recruit," he said.

But concern about the bottom line remains.

Clarence Councilman Joe Weiss has been waging a steep unhill battle to tamp down the cost of fire services and to get fire companies to focus more heavily on emergency medical services.

"What do they need with all these [fire trucks]? Their calls are mostly EMS," said Weiss, who said one firefighter suggested he'd be a great fundraiser for the town's fire service -- as the target in a demolition derby with vollies as the drivers.

Outsiders could end up doing the job for them. The New York State Reorganization and Citizens Empowerment Act, which so far has been aimed at dissolving village governments, also applies to fire departments, which could be abolished or consolidated. Firefighters fear it would empower town officials to take the reins although there is some confusion about whether that would be the case.

>Consolidation in future?

The act, which took effect in March, is aimed at saving costs by eliminating duplication of services. It also amends the Municipal Home Rule law to allow a county Legislature to initiate takeover of fire services, although that would require a referendum.

A bill exempting fire services from the act has been introduced by Assemblyman Phil Boyle, a Bay Shore Republican.

"I did it to allay the fears of firefighters," he said.

The Poloncarz report supports the new law as is. Among its recommendations is getting grant money for an outside study that would focus on consolidation, and giving towns authority over all fire spending and how best to deploy volunteers.

Lake View's Wicka said his department already is making changes to be more cost efficient. He said his company went from four pumper trucks to two pumper trucks and a pumper/rescue truck. All nine Hamburg fire departments and some others nearby train together and jointly purchased training equipment.

Still, Weiss and other critics doubt significant change will come from within.

"Are you kidding me? There's no way they can police themselves," he said.

And the new law may give town officials power to take over fire service, but he doubts there is any political will.

"There's nobody with any guts on this," Weiss said. "No one wants to be the skunk at the garden party."

e-mail: ncervantes@buffnews.com