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Rockland County - Volunteer firefighters face $30 charge after county drops funding

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Rockland's volunteer firefighters will now have to hand over $30 each to get their face masks fitted after the county decided to start charging for the service.

Gordon Wren Jr., the county director of Fire and Emergency Services, said he decided to require the charge so he could avoid cutting any of the 250 training courses offered by the county to the firefighters.

If all 2,800 volunteers paid the fee, it would add up to $84,000. The department's overall 2010 budget is about $3.2 million.

"This isn't going to save a lot of money," Wren said.

But like other county department heads, Wren has been told by County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef to trim spending.

The county has been awaiting $63 million in state reimbursements for providing a variety of services on the state's behalf, and has not seen its sales-tax revenues recover as in neighboring Westchester and Putnam counties.

Despite imposing the fee, Wren said he was still trying to find a solution so firefighters wouldn't have to pay.

"If I can find a way to get around this, I'm going to do it," Wren said.

He said volunteers who are strictly exterior firefighters, those who handle traffic, and older members who no longer respond to most fires typically don't get their masks fitted, reducing the overall number of people who would need to pay the fee, Wren said.

About five years ago, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandated that all firefighters have their face masks fitted annually.

The masks connect to tanks of air used by firefighters so they are not overcome by smoke or other potentially hazardous fumes.

The county Office of Fire and Emergency Services purchased two pieces of testing equipment and had instructors trained on how to use the devices after the OSHA rule.

The goal was to save taxpayers money by eliminating the need for each department to buy its own equipment, Wren said.

Before imposing the $30 fee, Wren contacted his counterparts in Orange, Putnam and Westchester counties.

He said Orange and Putnam counties never provided the mask-fitting tests. Instead, each department handled the task on its own. In Westchester, the county bought four devices, then trained people in different departments in how to use them, Wren said. Westchester also loans devices to departments, he said.

Wren said he wants to look into applying for grants that would allow Rockland to purchase a new device and train volunteers. The county could then loan out the device to different departments, he said.

That's a plan he intends to discuss with members of the county Legislature's Public Safety Committee when it convenes at 5 p.m. today in the Allison-Parris County Office Building, 11 New Hempstead Road in New City.

Legislator Jay Hood Jr., D-Haverstraw, said he is concerned about the fee and the pattern it represents when it comes to county government and the services it provides.

"It's the same exact thing as the mosquitoes, where we're passing the cost down," Hood said.

In early spring, the county Health Department informed towns and villages that it would not treat catch basins with larvicide in their communities this year. That left the task up to the municipalities, none of which has its own health department or staff trained in applying the larvicide that kills mosquito eggs.

After an outcry, Legislator Ilan Schoenberger, D-Wesley Hills, and Legislature Chairwoman Harriet Cornell, D-West Nyack, successfully proposed tapping a county contingency account to pay for the job.

"I realize we have to cut costs, watch costs, but I don't think a $30 fee for volunteer firefighters is going to save all that much," Hood said.

Vanderhoef, a Republican, said each department has been asked to trim spending; department heads made the decisions on the mask fittings and the larvicide.

"Everyone has been asked by this office to do more with less," Vanderhoef said.

Robert Booth, chief of the Nyack Fire Department, said his 100-member department would wait to see if Wren could find a solution.

He said the new fee would cost his department $3,000 annually and be a tough cost to bear. He said the testing equipment itself cost about $9,000 and represented an even harder cost for the department to cover.

Booth, in his second year as chief and his 35th year as a volunteer firefighter, said he was told of the new fee via e-mail last week.

"We're going to wait and see. If there's no alternative, we might want to talk to neighboring departments and buy one," Booth said, referring to the testing equipment.

The Journal News
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