December 28, 2006

For fire departments —

Incentives not enough to attract volunteers

Fire Dept

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Virgil fire chief Jamie Babcock stands with his son, Jake, 4, and other Virgil volunteer firefighters (from left) Murray Kinney, Roxanne Kimbal, Matthew Kinney, Scott Elston, Jim LeFever, and Richard Jenney.  Fire departments in the area are looking for new volunteers.

Staff Reporter

A family tradition drove Fire Chief Jaime Babcock to join the Virgil Fire Department 18 years ago. His stepfather was the fire chief, and both his mother and brother were assistant fire chiefs for the department.
But it is more than tradition that keeps him manning the volunteer firehouse from Monday to Sunday. He does it for the “camaraderie,” for the “sense of pride, knowing that what I do is helping out the community.”
Babcock is not alone. Harrison Breuer, membership coordinator for the New York Firemen’s Association, said there are 95,000 volunteer firemen in New York state.
As volunteers, they are not paid and the incentives and benefits they are eligible for are limited at best.
In Cortland County, Cortlandville and the city fire departments are the only departments that have implemented a service awards program, which gives volunteer firefighters points for attending meetings, fund-raisers, responding to emergency calls and training. The points are accumulated to make a firefighter eligible for retirement benefits.
Cortlandville volunteer firefighters have been receiving the service awards benefit for the past 16 years. The city has had the program since the mid to late 1990s, said Cortland County Fire Emergency Management Coordinator Robert Duell.
Volunteer firefighters need to accumulate 50 points annually for the city to put $480 in a retirement account, said Andy Damiano, the city Director of Administration and Finance. The money is invested in the stock market.
Starting Jan. 1, Virgil is also implementing a recruitment and retention program. It works on the same 50-point system as the city’s.
Babcock said the program would be operated by Cortland-based McNeil and Co. An official of the company did not return several calls seeking comment on the program.
Babcock said approximately $10,000 will be set-aside in the department’s budget annually to sustain the service awards program. Babcock said after age 65 volunteer firemen would receive between $500 and 600 a month in benefits. He said the program works like a certificate of deposit.
He also thinks the recruitment and retention program will prompt an additional membership growth spurt in the department.
“People see there are more benefits other than just coming and working your butt off and getting a pat on the back,” Babcock said.
States and municipalities across the country are trying to retain and recruit volunteer firefighters with service awards programs, retirement programs, worker compensation programs and financial assistance for education for the children and spouses of volunteer firefighters.
New York state provides a one-time lump sum of $50,000 payable to the relatives or estate of a volunteer firefighter who dies in the line of duty. The state also provides workers’ compensation benefits for injuries that happen in the line of duty. The state also funds a firefighter’s funeral in excess of $6,000 and supplies memorial scholarships for spouses and children of deceased firefighters.
In 2006, the state added a $200 refundable tax credit for volunteer firefighters and volunteer ambulance workers. To be eligible for the credit, a taxpayer must be a volunteer for the taxable year and must not be receiving a property tax exemption relating to volunteer service.
Tom Bergin, spokesman for the state Department of Taxation and Finance, said the tax credit could reduce the amount of income tax a volunteer may have to pay or increase the refund the volunteer receives.
“If you are already getting a refund, it can increase that by 200 bucks,” Bergin said. Volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers would not see the refund or reduction in income tax until they filed for their 2007 taxes in 2008, he said.
The Volunteer Firefighter and Emergency Medical Services bill introduced by Congressman John R. “Randy” Kuhl Jr. in June would provide a $2,000 federal tax credit for active volunteer firefighters and emergency medical service personnel. The bill is in the Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives.
Cincinnatus Assistant Fire Chief Jim Parker said his department does not have any substantial incentives to recruit and retain members. Other than state benefits given to families after a firefighter has died in the line of duty, the only thing the Cincinnatus firefighters and others in the district are eligible for are workers’ compensation benefits and a $200 tax credit.
“It is very difficult to recruit a member with these incentives,” Parker said. “We recruit members based on, ‘This is your community so you should do something for it.’”

Strict requirements abet national decline

Some volunteer firefighters lay it all on the line for personal satisfaction, to help out with the community, they volunteer because someone has to and why not them?
“If somebody calls 911 and no one responds then somebody is in trouble,” said McGraw Fire Chief Lawrence Petrie. “Somebody has to do it.”
The past 20 years volunteer departments nationwide have seen a decline in their members as they try to protect their municipalities.
According to the Mercatus Center, at George Mason University, in Virginia, the last two decades have seen an 11 percent decrease in the number of volunteer firefighters across the nation. The Mercatus Center is a research center, which addresses the conditions that enable successful economies and the circumstances, which drive social and political change. The center attributes the decline to the increased regulations and training requirements put forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“It is a huge time requirement,” said Cortlandville Fire Chief Dave Denniston. “It takes about 80 to 100 hours of training just to learn the basics.”
Not only does Willet Fire Chief Greg McGowan blame the lack of members on the hours of training required, but also on people working longer hours and traveling further to get to work. He said being a volunteer firefighter is like having a second job.
On average, fire departments in the county have approximately 30 to 40 volunteer members; in some cases only half are active firefighters.
City Fire Chief David Baron said he has 50 volunteers, but “I’d love to have 100, so does everybody in the county. It (lack of volunteers) is a national problem.”
With only the city having paid firefighters, the majority of departments in the county are left understaffed or without any members to respond to emergency calls during the day. Other departments are routinely called for assistance when volunteer companies are understaffed.
“The biggest problem facing volunteers is daytime,” said county Fire Emergency Management Coordinator Robert Duell. “Most volunteers work during the day.”
Attempts by the Cortland Standard to reach officials of fire departments in Harford, Homer, Cuyler and Preble for comment were unsuccessful.
Bill Kimball, a Virgil fire commissioner, said the department could use more volunteers, especially on the day shift.
Of the departments in the county, Virgil is the only one that has experienced a sudden growth spurt.
“We have (15) new members this year alone,” said Babcock, who is a corrections officer for the Cortland County Sheriff’s Department. “This is a major jump from last year.”
He said on average the department gets three to four new applications per year. As of now, the department has 45 active members.
Babcock credits the growth of the department to the new fire station, and the converting of the station from a “boys club” to a family environment.
As one of three women members of the Virgil Fire Department, Tamie Olmsted said she feels welcome in the brotherhood of what has been “traditionally a men’s field.”
Olmsted said people who are volunteer firefighters are not people who sit on the sidelines. “They jump right in the middle.”
Brandon Anderson, 19, joined the Virgil Fire Department for the excitement.
“It’s an adrenaline rush,” Anderson said. “It’s really fun. It is a really exciting thing. Some people sky dive. I like the big red trucks.”
Anderson acknowledges that the monetary benefits available to him are limited to none, but he said the training received is an incentive.
“The training is helpful to a lot of people,” said Anderson who wants to work in law enforcement. “It can help you in everyday things.”
Virgil Firefighter Scott Elston, 43, counts the immediate gratification as a benefit.
“Being a volunteer is a very positive experience,” said Elston who has only been a firefighter for a year. “The compensation is gratification. It is service to your community.”
For McGowan, a simple thank you would suffice.
“All we ever ask for is a thank you now and then.”



Kolb is named State Assembly floor leader

Staff Reporter

A state assemblyman whose district includes Preble and Moravia, has been appointed to the No. 2 leadership position within the Assembly’s Republican ranks.
Assemblyman Brian Kolb (R-Geneva), who represents the 129th Assembly District, was appointed Minority Leader Pro-Tempore, or floor leader, by current Minority Leader James Tedisco (R-Schenectady).
As floor leader, Kolb will be responsible for leading the debate for the Republican Party on the Assembly floor, according to Tedisco spokesperson Phil Oliva, and will also manage and shape debate strategy for a party that is vastly outnumbered — 104-44 — by its Democratic counterparts.
“Assemblyman Kolb is going to be leading the effort from our side of the aisle,” Oliva said. “It won’t be an easy job by any means.”
Kolb, who has served in the Assembly since 2000, called the appointment an honor, and said it would require longer hours in Albany and a strict attention to detail.
“It will involve monitoring every piece of legislation that comes up on the Assembly floor, making sure the correct procedures are followed,” Kolb said. “It’s definitely a complicated position — getting to know the inner-workings of the legislative session — it’s very comprehensive in nature.”
As floor leader, Kolb will devise strategies for how Assembly Republicans will debate and influence legislation, he said, and how and when to bring legislation to the floor.
For instance, he noted, one issue the Republicans in the Assembly feel strongly about is civil confinement for sex offenders, which essentially places convicted sex offenders who have served their time but are still considered a risk in state operated facilities.
“If they (Democrats) decide to do a criminal justice bill but it doesn’t address civil confinement, we may attach what is_commonly referred to as a hostile amendment to make sure they take action on that,” Kolb said.
Another priority for early 2007, according to Oliva, are rules changes that would give the minority party more opportunities to debate legislation.
“In a few weeks we’re going to introduce a set of rules packages that would open up the process and make it more transparent and fair,” Oliva said. “And it’s going to be Assemblyman Kolb who takes that to the floor and makes the impassioned plea for its passage.”
Kolb said he looked forward to that_challenge.
“We want a super majority (a two-thirds vote) to be required on any bill that contains a new tax, and we’re going fight for that,” Kolb said. “We also want minority members to have more of a say in the process, we want to make sure more rank-and-file legislators are involved, not just the three men in a back room approach.”
Oliva said Kolb was Tedisco’s choice to replace previous floor leader Will Stevens of Putnam County, who was defeated in a primary election this September, because of his experience as a business leader and his ties to upstate New York.
“Assemblyman Kolb chaired our manufacturing task force — he traveled around upstate New York talking to small businesses and manufacturers — and upstate is a big issue for us because that’s where most of our members are from,” Oliva said. “Most of the Democrats are from New York City, the downstate area, and I think it’s important to be able to balance that with somebody well versed in upstate issues.”
Kolb said his appointment was good news for this region.
“This really is a significant appointment, to be able to have such visibility for our area and our region,” Kolb said. “Certainly it’s key that upstate voices are represented on the Assembly floor.”


Homer businessman recalls ski trip with Ford

Staff Reporter

HOMER — John Eves was a “lowly” radio reporter in Vail, Colo., when he met President Gerald Ford 30 years ago at the age of 26.
“He was a great guy,” said Eves, general manager and co-owner of Homer FM radio station WXHC. “He was so down to earth.”
Ford died Tuesday at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Eves said he was remembering Ford Tuesday and thinking about the time he went skiing with him 30 years ago on New Year’s Eve. Two pictures of him skiing with the president hang on a wall of his office on the third floor of the First Niagara Bank at 12 S. Main St., Homer.
Eves was working at his first full-time radio job as a news director for KVMT in Vail. He said six months earlier he was working in radio part time and making pizzas part time.
Eves met Ford when he was covering the White House temporarily — a three-week assignment — for the White House correspondent who was covering President-elect Jimmy Carter.
He introduced himself to Ford and mentioned he was a good skier if the president wanted to have company skiing. 
“He was a pretty good skier,” Eves said of Ford.
The president did take a “wicked fall” while the two skied, but he got right up, Eves said. He remembered seeing the guns the secret service agents carried underneath their jackets when they went to assist him.
A press release on the president’s itinerary that day listed a ski trip with Eves and an NBC radio reporter, Russell Ward.
Eves rode up the hill with Ford in the middle of a triple chairlift. A Secret Service agent was on the other side, the same man who pulled the gun away from Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme in September 1975 after she tried to assassinate Ford.
During the trip up the mountain, Eves said he remembered telling the president his mother was the Republican election commissioner in Cortland County; the president, who said he had never visited Cortland, said to say hello to her.
The Secret Service surrounded the skiers for the 1 1/2 to 2 hours they skied, moving everyone else away from the skiers.
After skiing, the president invited Eves and a few friends to lunch, and he met the president’s wife, Betty, although she did not eat lunch with the president. Betty Ford was sitting on the couch in her bathrobe, he recalled. “I said, ‘Hello, Mr. President, how are you?’” Eves recalled.
He said President Ford laughed at the mistake.
“I sat next to him at lunch.” But Eves only remembers drinking a beer; he does not remember what he ate. “I was pretty mesmerized,” he said. Waiters in black jackets waited on him and the other four men.
Ford told Eves he learned to ski while attending Yale University.
“It was cool riding the chairlift with him and having lunch,” Eves said.
Charles Gibson and Tom Brokaw were also covering the president at the time. The news of the day was Ford’s attempt to make Puerto Rico a state.
Eves said he ended up shown on national TV on both CBS and NBC. “I stood right behind him (Ford),” said Eves, for about 20 seconds.
Once he was out of office, Ford started a Gerald Ford Charity Golf Tournament in Vail, near his summer home.
Eves became involved in that, too, interviewing Ford and celebrities who played in the tournament, such as comedian Bob Hope and actor/director Clint Eastwood. Eves said he has a reel with his interview of Ford that he will keep forever.
Thirty years ago partisan politics was not the norm, he said. Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, a Democrat, was a good friend of Ford’s and played in the tournament.
When Ford pardoned Nixon in September 1974, Eves was like everyone else — wondering why Ford would do that. But after meeting Ford, he can understand why he did. “Everybody liked him. He was just a nice guy,” Eves said of Ford. Like historians, Eves believes Ford’s decision to pardon cost him the election in 1976.
Eves also believes that today a new reporter would not have the opportunity he had to get close with the president.
“Presidents are so insulated now — what are the chances of a lowly radio reporter spending time with a president of the United States?”