Firefighting brings new challenges every day, and there’s no one-size-fits-all handbook for a firefighter’s life. In recognition of these valued volunteers’ heroic acts, the City Council and Mayor Pamela Panzenbeck have given their unanimous approval to the Glen Cove Volunteer Fire Department to hold a referendum next month to extend the eligibility for the city’s Length of Service Award Program from 35 years to 50 years.
The city’s firefighters are not paid, but thanks to the program, known as LOSAP, they receive pension-style benefits when they turn 65.
“One of the issues is that people no longer volunteer like they used to,” Panzenbeck said. “The program is a means of recruitment and retention to get people to join. We want to support our volunteers.”
According to Nassau County Firefightera, there are some 4,000 fewer volunteer firefighters in Nassau County than there were 20 year ago. The decline is not only a major public safety concern, but also creates major challenges in county firehouses. Limited staffing increases safety concerns among firefighters, who are often given expanded responsibilities. It also places financial burdens on fire departments when firefighters don’t stay in the service as long, as the departments bear the cost of training and equipping new volunteers.
Glen Cove Fire Chief Robert S. Retoske said the department currently has about 90 firefighters, its smallest contingent in 10 years.
Only two Long Island fire departments, Setauket and Long Beach, have some paid firefighters. There are none in Glen Cove, but the GCFD offers scholarships to the children of firefighters who are applying to college.
The city’s firefighters answer roughly 3,000 calls per year, and, if needed, can make use of a mutual-aid program with surrounding fire departments on the North Shore. The program, which was designed to compensate for the shortage of daytime manpower, was used only twice last year for house fires.
Other towns and cities aren’t so lucky. Across the state, the sound of sirens racing to emergency calls is less frequent, because staffing shortages plague not only fire departments, but also crews of emergency medical technicians. The State Department of Health’s Bureau of Emergency Medical Services reports a drop of nearly 10 percent in the number of certified EMTs over the past decade. In 2021, according to the department, 15 percent of all available EMS personnel did not renew their certifications.
Although Glen Cove doesn’t face the same scarcity as other municipalities, there is concern about recruiting and retaining members of the Fire Department — especially given the construction of multi-story residential buildings in the city, some of which have wooden components to their architecture.
The unpredictable nature of emergencies makes it difficult to estimate exactly how many responders the department needs from year to year.
If the referendum passes, it will increase the number of years years in which volunteers can earn service credits from 35 to 50. Every year that they serve, firefighters must accumulate 50 credits to qualify for the program. They gain credits by participating in department responses; attending meetings; instructing training courses, drills, sleep-ins and stand-bys; teaching fire-prevention classes; or being elected to officers’ ranks.
City Controller Mike Piccirillo said the incremental cost to the city of the enhanced service award program would be approximately $24,000 in 2024, and $33,000 on average each year thereafter. The current program compensates firefighters $20 per month multiplied by the years of credited service, not to exceed 35 years. At that point the plan generates $8,400 per year, or $700 per month. Members must be at least 65 to collect the benefits.
Piccirillo said that on average, over the past several years, the city has contributed approximately $155,000 to the program.
The referendum is scheduled for Dec. 18, from noon to 8 p.m., at Fire Department headquarters, at 10 Glen Cove Ave.