Buckle in kids: this is gonna be a long one….

A few months back when Nolan’s was destroyed by fire, and the community erupted in debate as to whether or not Canandaigua needed more on-duty professional firefighters, I reserved judgement and had far many more questions than answers (you can read about those questions here).  I wanted to hear from City Council on the topic, and I didn’t have long to wait:  in a July 23rd Messenger Post  editorial, City Council laid out the financial in-feasibility of such an increase and asserted that there were other strategies (increasing the numbers of volunteers, increasing student-volunteer participation, better mutual aid arrangements) that wouldn’t bust the budget.  Council’s editorial was helpful, reassuring and well-reasoned, and it clearly articulated the authors’ commitment to manage our city’s finances responsibly.

But who I hadn’t yet heard from directly were the folks that actually suit up and do the job.  Fortunately, I was invited to meet recently with the Executive Board of the union serving Canandaigua’s professional firefighters, I.A.F.F. Local 2098.  The members of that board are firefighters Jay Boock, Ben Cramer and Sam Loiacono.  And after 90 minutes with these gentleman, I finally feel as if I have what I need to generate a better informed opinion. And that opinion is this:

The City of Canandaigua needs to devote more resources to its fire protection.  Two on-duty firefighters at a time is not sufficient to protect a city the size of Canandaigua.  And it’s definitely not enough to ensure the safety of its firefighters. 

Before I get into my thinking that led to this conclusion, let me be clear and say that this statement is not equal to my believing that Canandaigua is an unsafe place.  Our city is a very safe place, and I appreciate the service of all who work to protect our city. Whether it’s the firefighters themselves, City Council, city staff or code enforcement, there are a lot of folks who care deeply and work hard to keep our city safe, and I’m grateful

So, here are some points of reasoning that informed that conclusion above:

Vital as they are, volunteers are not the sole solution: there aren’t enough of them and they can’t always get to fires as quickly as they may be needed   Canandaigua is experiencing locally a trend repeated across the United States: the struggle to recruit and retain volunteers.  (You can read about the forces driving this trend in the excellent New York Times feature, “The Disappearing Volunteer Firefighter.”)  The professional firefighters with whom I met expressed nothing but respect and gratitude for volunteers, and agreed that increasing their numbers is important.  But they also pointed out that volunteers’ ability to arrive within 5 ½ minutes (a national fire response standard) was inconsistent: most volunteers live outside of the City of Canandaigua and many are unavailable during the day because of their paid employment commitments.

While the number of on-duty firefighters remains static at two, Canandaigua’s multi-use and commercial development is on the rise   Canandaigua has several large, commercial or multi-use properties in city limits (including a major one in Ward 4, the Constellation Brands facility on Buffalo St) and quite a few more on the way.  Consider the way Canandaigua will look a few years from now:

  • a fully occupied Pinnacle North
  • a completed Finger Lakes Resort (fingers crossed!)
  • a bustling retail, residential and artisan space spread out over 12 acres at the Lisk Manufacturing site
  • the Labelon property comprised of apartments and office space.

As our city grows and changes, so too must the resources in hand to protect it.

Mutual aid is not automatic aid, and the VA Fire Department cannot and will not contract with us for automatic aid    The VA is allowed to send two to three firefighters if requested and available.  And if you look at all the VA fire department is responsible for here, you can understand why they are sometimes not available.  Even when available, they have not always been able to arrive within that critical 5 ½ minutes.  During our meeting, Ben recounted his experience at the fire on Scotland Road.  In that instance, while waiting for mutual aid to arrive, he and the other firefighter responding were luckily able to rescue residents via ladder from a second-story window.  But until VA and other resources arrived, he was powerless to go into that house and rescue folks who might have been unable to reach the windows.

Slashed funding for the fire department has slashed safety and fire prevention education in our community   With only two firefighters on duty at a time, fire prevention education and other prevention services like fire extinguisher training are now only available to community organizations at a price.  Some of those organizations (including daycares and private schools) have been priced out of these services, so their employees or students go without the education that could prevent a fire or save a life.

The human cost   While all of the factors above are important as we contemplate with adequate fire protection looks like for Canandaigua, there has been one thing rattling around in my head since I met with the I.A.F.F. 2098: the personal impact from this staffing situation on these firefighters.

The guys talked about the experience of returning back to the station after a fire like Scotland Road.  Like two boxers going to their separate corners, each firefighter goes alone back to his own station.  And there he is, alone, as the adrenalin drains from his body and his mind races, replaying the events of just an hour or two prior.  Jay mentioned that firefighters die from heart attacks at a greater rate than the general population (read more about that here) and said that if he returned from a fire and had a heart attack, he’d likely die there alone and be found by the guy coming in to relieve him.

From the moment I heard that, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  There are plenty of sound reasons to devote more resources to fire protection, but the human cost for not doing it should not be overlooked.  If you think that’s an emotional response that has no place in decisions like these, then I may not be the candidate for you.  Because I think the best decision-making is derived from the application of sound judgement that is informed not just by facts, but also by our values.  Caring for those who care and fight for us is a value I’m not ashamed to own.

That’s my thinking behind my support for additional resources for Canandaigua’s fire protection.  I wasn’t always convinced, but I am now.

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So how can Canandaigua afford additional resources?  Here are a few of my ideas:

We can prioritize fire protection as a shared-services opportunity in the short-term  –  At the September 21st Joint Canandaigua City Council/Canandaigua Town Board meeting, fire protection was listed as a long-term opportunity.  We need to explore this sooner rather than later, and we need to consider expanding the fire protection district beyond just the Town in order to consolidate existing professional departments, leverage savings in areas of common overhead, and spread out fixed costs across a wider municipal base.

We can stop renewing the PILOTs of for-profit companies  –  I appreciate the necessity of some PILOTs in order to attract businesses that contribute to the economic development of Canandaigua.  But when we are renewing PILOTs for entities that are already established, we are in effect improving the operating margin of that business at the expense of city revenues that support fire protection.

 

We can think differently about Code Enforcement  –  There are aspects of code enforcement that dovetail with the competencies of the professional firefighter.  Why can’t one of the two code enforcement FTEs be allocated to the fire department for a full-time professional fire fighter and, in turn, some appropriate code enforcement responsibilities be assigned to the fire department?

We can collaborate with tax-exempt property owners to find ways to help with the costs of the fire protection they receive but currently do not support  –  Across Ontario County, up to 25% of the full market value of real property is tax exempt (I wasn’t able to find the rate in the City of Canandaigua).  In 2012 in Syracuse NY, a full 56% of the property value was tax-exempt.  To address the impact on city’s finances, Syracuse entered into voluntary PILOT arrangements with a number of non-profit, tax-exempt property owners to help support the municipal services they use and benefit from.  Canandaigua city government should explore the potential to make similar appeals based on fairness and good citizenship to our tax-exempt property owners and encourage Ontario County and the Town to do the same.

Some of these ideas may be good, some may be crap.  I will have to wait to have the benefit of sitting on Council and proposing these ideas for consideration and review by Council and city staff to better understand their worth.  But the greater point is that we must stop operating under the supposition that additional fire protection resources aren’t needed because we cannot afford them.  If they are needed, and a 2007 study commissioned by the City of Canandaigua determined that they were, then we need to figure out how to afford it.  Even incremental increases in staffing can help: Sam Loicano commented to me that while four on-duty firefighters is ideal, any increase in staffing will benefit the department and improve safety.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way” is a trite expression, but it has never been truer than when applied to this issue.  I want to help City Council buy-in to the “will,” so together we can find the way to accomplish ongoing improvement in safety services for the City of Canandaigua without hammering residents with higher property taxes.

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