Blaze raises question: Enough firefighters?
By Jeff Simms
Three Beacon residents remain in stable condition at Westchester Medical Center after suffering severe burns in a fire that destroyed a Rombout Avenue home on Feb. 9.
Three city firefighters arrived on the scene at 4:46 a.m. to find the home engulfed, said Chief Gary Van Voorhis.
The three injured residents — Gloria Gamble, Arielle Gamble and Raequan Keemer — escaped by running through the flames down a stairwell. A fourth resident, Christian Matias, suffered minor injuries after jumping from a second-floor window. A dog also died, while another was rescued.
“There was a lot of fire in the structure,” Van Voorhis said. “They were very fortunate to get out of the house without sustaining more severe injuries.”
At least four fundraising pages have been created at gofundme.com to assist the family with medical costs and replacing its possessions. Fire officials have not determined the cause of the blaze.
Five full-time and 10 volunteer firefighters later joined the three first responders to battle the flames in 14-degree temperatures. “For my department, it’s all about the initial on-scene arrival,” Van Voorhis said. “That’s when you need the manpower, and this fire was overwhelming for the manpower we had.”
A dwindling number of volunteers has raised questions in Beacon and in other municipalities about whether they must add to their paid staff.
“If we were to go to a paid staff, with no volunteers, the minimum I think we would need is double what we have right now,” said Beacon Mayor Randy Casale. “And I think that would cost more than $1 million to get started.”
Beacon has 13 full-time firefighters, three of whom are on duty at any time. The latter has been the standard for more than 100 years, Van Voorhis said. But today there are only about two dozen regular volunteers who assist at the city’s three fire companies.
A 2015 study by the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, which supports volunteers, estimated that it would cost almost $112 million annually to provide all-paid fire protection throughout Dutchess County, excluding pensions, as well as $223 million to make the necessary upgrades to the county’s fire stations, vehicles and equipment.
However, Beacon’s chief doesn’t believe it’s an all-or-nothing equation. “I don’t think we need to have a fully paid fire department here,” Van Voorhis said, although any additional paid staffing would help, he added.
Newburgh is facing a similar numbers crunch. Twelve of the city’s 68 paid firefighters are in danger of losing their jobs when the federal grant funding that pays their salaries expires this summer.
City Manager Michael Ciaravino said on Tuesday (Feb. 13) that he will ask the Newburgh City Council to approve spending more than $500,000 in sales tax revenue to retain the firefighters through the end of the year while city officials work on a fix.
Casale said that Beacon must think outside the box because the city simply can’t afford to add as many firefighters as it needs, nor does it have excess funding like Newburgh. One option, he said, would be offering volunteers a per diem stipend to stay on call at certain times. Right now, volunteers only respond to emergency calls if they’re available.
But because of tougher training requirements, today’s volunteers often lack the qualifications — for interior firefighting, for example — of previous generations.
“You could have 50 volunteers at a fire, but in addition to what time they get there, it’s what they’re capable and qualified to do,” Van Voorhis said.
Casale said he sees fire protection as a regional effort, as Beacon often assists nearby fire companies when emergency calls come in. Ciaravino has made the same appeal in Newburgh, saying the city’s paid fire department has historically subsidized neighboring municipalities’ volunteer companies.
“It should be addressed at the county level,” Casale said. “Otherwise, I don’t know how we’re going to afford it.”