Hoping for funds for four officers, will get one
By Jeff Simms
Just days before the Beacon City Council is scheduled to vote on the city’s 2019 budget, firefighters in Beacon say that fire protection is in a “more dangerous position than ever.”
The council is expected during its Monday, Dec. 3, meeting to adopt a $28.6 million plan for 2019 that includes a tax-rate decrease on commercial and residential properties, although property owners’ individual assessments will determine whether their bills go up or down.
The budget also includes $96,240 to pay for an additional full-time (“career”) firefighter, keeping the city’s roster to 13 after the retirement of Tim Dexter, who was also Beacon’s building inspector. Active and retired firefighters have spent the last two months asking the council for more.
The dearth of volunteers in firefighting and other fields has been well-documented. The number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. reached a 30-year low in 2011, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. There has been some growth since, but it hasn’t been enough to meet the increasing demand, which has tripled due in large part to an increase in emergency medical calls.
Longer commutes plus training requirements almost four times as time-consuming as they were a generation ago are often pointed to as reasons for the decline. Those things are happening everywhere, but firefighters say the situation in Beacon has become almost unmanageable.
“You are on the edge of having a catastrophe in Beacon because you can’t get firefighters into the buildings fast enough to save lives,” Tom DiCastro Sr., a former city fire chief, said during the Nov. 19 council meeting. “You’d better start acting on it.”
Another retired firefighter, Jeff Simko, emphasized, “It has never been this bad. It has never been this fraught with danger for the fire department, the firefighters and, most importantly, for the people of the city of Beacon.”
In addition to career staff, DiCastro said, 30 to 40 volunteers would typically show up at a fire in Beacon in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, the department has 25 volunteers, eight of whom are certified for interior firefighting, but on average fewer than one of them (0.7 percent) responds to calls.
Nearby fire companies often assist each other on calls or man stations while crews are out. “Our neighbor departments have the same issue — they don’t have anyone,” DiCastro said.
Unfortunately, says Anthony Ruggiero, the city administrator, Beacon’s options are limited. The 2019 budget proposal funds the fire department at $1.7 million, a $177,000 decrease over two years ago, but much of that difference was in equipment costs.
While the department has pushed for at least three new career firefighters — one for each of Beacon’s three stations — in addition to the one already in the budget, the city can’t make that jump in one year, Ruggiero said.
“We have to provide the best service we can afford,” he said, noting that paying for three more firefighters would “certainly go through” the state’s tax cap, which limits year-to-year increases to about 2 percent. “You also need a plan of action,” Ruggiero said. “Where are you going to put everybody?”
(The city for years has considered consolidating its fire stations, two of which are more than 100 years old. The most recent scenario would construct a new central station at the dog park space at Memorial Park.)
Two other ideas have been to make volunteer firefighting more attractive and to consider a regional approach.
Council Member Jodi McCredo said she hopes the city will look into incentives such as health insurance or other benefits to persuade more residents to volunteer. “It’s so difficult, especially in a place like Beacon, where so many people have long commutes,” she said. “Bringing more jobs into the city would help with that.”
Managing a regional system seems equally complex. Seven years ago, the research agency Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress studied shared services in Dutchess County and concluded that “police, fire and ambulance services are all in need of close scrutiny but are among the hardest discussions. The mere suggestion of sharing these services, especially fire, was often met with ‘I won’t touch that.’ ”
Municipalities should “study whether the staffing levels, location of the facilities, response times, departmental structures and dispatch function are designed to maximize efficiency,” Pattern for Progress wrote.
Council Member Lee Kyriacou pushed again during the Nov. 19 meeting for a regional approach. “To solve the problem by increasing the number of career firefighters in Beacon may help us, but it isn’t an effective solution,” he said. “We have way too many firehouses, way too much equipment and nowhere near enough paid, qualified interior firefighter staff. But it can’t just be Beacon with paid staff and everyone else calls in mutual aid.”
The rising costs of recycling and workers’ compensation and health insurance for city employees have made it tougher to find money in the budget, said Mayor Randy Casale.
“It’s not that we haven’t thought about [the fire department],” he said. “I know how critical it is right now. But when you’re putting a budget together, it’s a total picture. There are some people who can’t afford the number that we put in the budget now with their next tax bill. We have to think about everybody.”