No. Highlands is its Own Fire District

Company looks to young people to fill its ranks 

By Michael Turton

All local fire departments are not created equal. While the North Highlands Fire District (NHFD) and its Engine Company Number 1 share much in common with the three other fire departments in Philipstown, it also differs significantly, especially in one respect. As a fire district governed by publicly elected commissioners, NHFD is empowered to directly levy a tax on its residents as its main source of funding. The other local fire departments – Garrison, Cold Spring and Continental Village – rely on tax dollars in varying degrees, but they must request such funds through their local municipal council – not through a tax that they levy themselves. As a result, unlike residents in the rest of Philipstown, tax payers in North Highlands can directly influence their fire department’s spending and operations. An example of that took place in 2006 when residents voted “no” on a NHFD proposal to build a new $5.6 million,19,000 square-foot fire house on Fishkill Road. A year later, they voted “yes,” approving a somewhat scaled down, $4.8 million, 16,000 square foot facility.

Chairman of the Board of Commisioners George Lisikatos (L) and Fire Chief Pat Scherer

Ironically, while North Highlands residents enjoy a more direct say in their fire department’s affairs, one of the biggest concerns expressed by NHFD officials is a lack of public involvement. “Out of 1,100 registered voters in the district, in elections for commissioners we’re lucky if 50 people show up – and it’s mainly commissioners and their families,” said 31 year-old Fire Chief Pat Scherer. The 2007 vote on funding the new fire hall was the exception to that rule. “We had about 400 people vote and it won by about 50 votes.  At the last election for a commissioner there were about five people who voted.” The five commissioners are elected for five-year terms that are staggered to ensure that experienced commissioners serve at any given time. “We never have more than one person running for commissioner,” Scherer said.

Not surprisingly, lack of public involvement is accompanied by an equal lack of public understanding of North Highlands Fire District and Fire Company operations. “We’re volunteers. But even after the tough time we had with the vote [to fund the fire hall] they still think we are paid,” Scherer said.  “The irony is that even with all the stuff that has gone on with Garrison and Cold Spring [fire departments] no one comes to our meetings. It’s disheartening at times.”

Technically, the North Highlands Fire District and North Highlands Engine Company Number 1 are two separate and distinct entities. Seventy two year-old George Lisikatos, Chair of the North Highlands Board of Fire Commissioners, said that the District, through its tax levy, pays for all equipment, the building, vehicles and anything to do with the “firematic” or firefighting side of the operation. “But anything we want to make our experience at the fire hall better  – that’s our own responsibility,” Scherer said. Those extra items can include television sets, additional furnishings, food and refreshments. The fire company conducts fundraising to cover those costs. But when the discussion shifts from organization, funding and voter approval to firefighting it’s clear that Lisikatos and Scherer are both members of a closely knit team.

Cold Spring Junior Firefighters class of 2011 (Photo by L.S. Armstrong)

Young people recruited early
Like any volunteer fire department, NHFD and its Engine Company Number 1 need to constantly recruit new firefighters and they have tapped a seemingly unlikely source to accomplish that – the Boy Scouts. “The ‘Explorer’ program is an extension of Boy Scouts. It’s open to anyone between the ages of 14 and 21. They join and learn everything we do. We have a good bunch of 16 to 18 year olds,” Scherer said. “The number of kids [in Explorers] can vary from two to ten. It’s year round. Most stay and join the department; we have about a 90 percent success rate. By the time they’re 18 they’re ready to go.” Volunteers must be 18 in order to be involved in fighting fires inside buildings. Prior to that they can assist at outdoor fires, with traffic control and other duties. NHFD also benefits from the Cold Spring Fire Company’s Junior Fire Academy, with some of its graduates joining Explorers to continue their fire training just up the road at North Highlands.

Women play a key role within the NHFD. “We have a lot of women in the fire company – eight active fire fighters, two officers,” Scherer said. “They’ve earned the respect of even the most seasoned veteran. Whether you’re a male or a female it comes down to training and how well you do your job.”

“And in this department we constantly train,” Lisikatos said. “Every Monday we go out and do something. Once we get them in – we keep their interest. It makes a big difference.” NHFD could use more associate members to help with non-firefighting duties. “They’re few and far between these days,” Lisikatos said. “We can use any expertise that will help the department- raising money, working on the website, projects, day to day operations.”

Firefighting gear is always at the ready

Regulations impose challenges
Another challenge NHFD faces is the effect of regulations imposed by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). “Their standards are getting so – it’s going to cost us,” Lisikatos said. “There’s no exception to the rules.” He cited the time frame for replacing fire-fighting gear as a problem. The same standard that is applied to large fire departments such as New York City also applies to volunteer departments – even though urban departments answer many more calls resulting in much greater wear and tear and a shorter life span for equipment. Scherer said that for small departments. such as NHFD, the regulations mean having to replace gear that is still in good condition. “It’s a problem for small departments that can’t afford it,” Lisikatos said.

Consoldiation study
Scherer and Lisikatos have their views on the recent study of local fire departments completed by Ron Graner on behalf of the Town of Philipstown, although they don’t’ seem particularly phased by it. “Does he have some valid points? Yes. Do we have to address them? Yes. Were we addressing them before? Yes. It’s here and we have to deal with it,” said Scherer, who also cited flawed communications throughout the study process. “I didn’t take part in it,” Lisikatos said. “But as far as this district goes we’re totally above board. We have nothing to hide. Anyone can come in and ask for anything. It’s all in the open.” Both Lisikatos and Scherer questioned the wisdom of Graner’s recommendation that a cross section of the community serve as fire commissioners, even those who may lack experience with a fire department.

“We do a damned good job”
NHFD was established in 1969. The fire company averages between 110 and 150 calls a year although that total has been as high as 200. “Our response times are quite quick,” Scherer said. “It usually takes four to eight minutes for the first [personnel] to be on the scene. “The firehouse on Fishkill Road includes a large, well equipped, ADA compliant and air conditioned community room. Scherer said that use by community groups has picked up since the facilities were improved. The room has been used by residents of the fire district and groups such groups as Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Pine Wood Derby, Haldane Faculty Association. The NHFD Ladies Auxiliary also uses the facilities on a regular basis.

Out front of the firehouse, a new, digital sign board keeps passersby up to date on NHFD business – everything from elections, meetings of the fire commissioners and the need for more volunteers to monthly pizza nights, blood drives and open houses. Despite that and other attempts to communicate what they do in the name of public safety, Scherer and Lisikatos often come back to the public’s apparent lack of interest and understanding. Scherer recoils as he recalls a resident saying to him, “I’ve never had a fire in my house – so why do I have to pay for a fire department?”

“People tend to put bad things in the back of their mind. And day-to-day you don’t call the fire department. But there may be a day when you need it,” Scherer said.  “We all do the best we can with what we have. And we do a damned good job.”
Photos by M. Turton, except as noted

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