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Enthusiasm for volunteer firefighters wanes among council members

By Howard B. Owens

We need to check -- Has Adam Miller started selling backpedals?  It seems so. A few were put in use at tonight's Batavia City Council meeting.

Suddenly, the idea of taking a good hard look at converting the Batavia Fire Department to an all volunteer force doesn't seem as attractive to as many council members as it did May 26, when City Council President Charlie Mallow raised the issue in a fiery speech about the high cost of the current paid-professional service.

At that meeting, council members Marianne Clattenburg, Bill Cox, Bob Bialkowski and Rose Mary Christian all expressed support for looking more closely at the idea, with Clattenburg endorsing Mallow's call to arms with a hearty, "here, here."

Tonight, only Mallow kept the flame lit.

"I could foresee a problem with volunteers because of all the tall structures we have in the city," said Clattenburg. "I have real concerns if something disastrous happens."

Clattenburg said what she really meant at the previous meeting is that there should be some study on how the city can save money on fire service, such as looking at what cities of similar size as Batavia, with similar structures, do for fire service and how they keep costs down.

Christian, who wasn't quite as vocal in her support of Mallow's proposal in May, was more adamant in her opposition tonight to the idea of switching to an all volunteer force.

Christian made the repeated point -- disputed by Mallow -- that only paid professional fire fighters are trained in how to clear a building in an emergency, that volunteers are not allowed to get evacuation training.

"400 Towers is in my ward, and we have hospitals in the other wards," Christian said. "When you can prove to me that they have the training, then I can agree with it. Until then, I can't."

Christian also raised concerns about how quickly volunteers would respond, noting that current fire personnel can respond to an emergency anywhere in the city within three minutes.

When Bialkowski suggested that the City Council set some goals for what it hopes to accomplish with a reconsideration of the fire service, Christian interjected, "Goals are about money, and my goals are safety.  Money isn't always an issue."

And the theme was set for the discussion: This isn't all about money. We need to consider the safety issues as well.

"When we had that fire at Christina's, if not for the immediate response of the fire department, that whole block could have gone down," said Councilman Frank Ferrando.

Mallow reminded council members that terms of the current union agreement doesn't necessarily put safety first. Before any volunteer firefighter can be dispatched to a fire in the City of Batavia, all paid personnel must be called in, even if it means overtime.

"If we're going to talk about safety, let's really talk about safety," Mallow said. "Let's talk about these restrictions."

Mallow also said that there are bigger cities in New York, with bigger structures, that have all-volunteer fire departments.

"Just because we've always done it this way in Batavia doesn't make it right," Mallow said.

Council members are going to form a subcommittee to further study cost saving measures, including potentially coming up with a scheme to include volunteers with paid staff in a single department.

Christian (pictured top in file photo) is a candidate for a seat on the County Legislature and Clattenburg (file photo) is looking to move up from her Ward 2 council seat to a Council At Large seat.


I'd like to make an observation that false fire alarms at 2 o'clock in the morning will start to put a mental wear on volunteer fire fighters versus paid fire fighters.

Especially if it's pulled on purpose.

Jul 13, 2009, 11:49pm Permalink
Bea McManis

I'm not about to support or oppose the possibility of a volunteer fire department.
I would like someone to look into the labor laws regarding volunteers.
If volunteers are given specific hours to man the fire station (as opposed to responding from home or work) what draws the line between volunteerism and the need to compensate for hours served? This type of volunteer service is different than a candy striper at the hospital, or manning the visitors' booth at the Holland Land Office.
If compensation becomes an issue, then do they become contractors?
Just wondering.

Jul 14, 2009, 12:14am Permalink
Karen Miconi

I like the of the idea of a subcommittee, and including volunteers and paid staff in a single fire department. Great way to meet in the middle on issues, and cutbacks. Settling them, while being fair to all involved.

Jul 14, 2009, 11:03am Permalink
Peter O'Brien

Its not fair to the tax payers if response time is decreased. Unless there is enough staff on hand to man a truck then people will have to wait longer for service.

Jul 14, 2009, 11:10am Permalink
Bob Price

Stay with paid-local communities are having tough time filling the few vacancies they have,let alone a city with how many they would need.Plus with all the requirements and mandates if the state,it will keep getting tougher.....

Jul 14, 2009, 4:21pm Permalink
Joe Teresi III

Maybe the county should just expand more in public service. No reason the Police Depts. and Fire Depts. can't all be Genesee County. I have seen several counties that just employ a sherrif and couty run fire dept(counties with larger cities). Instead of having seperate depts. in Alexander, Pembroke, Batavia etc....Leadership can be consolidated and control would be increased.

Jul 16, 2009, 9:49am Permalink
Howard B. Owens

There's a lot of individual community pride tied up volunteer fire departments. They serve as an important social structure in the surrounding towns. That would be lost in a consolidated county-wide fire department.

Stafford's department seems, from what I've gathered so far, the most important social institution in Stafford.

The Town of Batavia has an exceptional fire department that is both quality and cost efficient.

All of that would be lost if consolidated.

The quality of life in Genesee County would be greatly diminished without such outstanding volunteer organizations. Bigger is not always better. Usually, it's worse.

Jul 16, 2009, 9:54am Permalink
Joe Teresi III

What if there was an augmentee group then. Employ a fire dept. with a minimum staff and have a group of augmentees who could respond if needed.

Jul 16, 2009, 10:02am Permalink
Howard B. Owens

I don't see where response is a problem.

Here's purely my speculation -- when there's a serious emergency event, the volunteers are exceptionally responsive. When it's a more minor incident, there is a tendency for volunteers to think "let somebody else handle it" and that town's tones get sounded up to three times before crews respond.

It would be nice if the multiple tone sounding wasn't ever necessary, but in a serious event, the volunteers are very responsive.

So I'm not sure what "augmentees" would accomplish except to drive up costs.

Jul 16, 2009, 10:11am Permalink
Joe Teresi III

Well I should clear up on what I mean augmentee. I agree completly that a volunteer force is exceptional when it comes to serious incidents. I also couldn't agree more when it is a minor incident most first responders would say "let someone else handle it". But what if we had a Paid group of firemen who we there 24/7 (as we do now, just on a smaller scale) to handle these minor incidents, then when something of a more serious nature occurs we could call up the volunteers to respond and assist our responders.

I believe it would be a risky decision to purely relie on a volunteer service for the city for our 24 hour needs.

However with the state of our economy it would be difficult to keep a force of individuals who would be working for free. Since these would be the ones responsible to respond to the 2 AM false alarm.

Jul 16, 2009, 10:32am Permalink

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