Since LOSAP started here in NY effective 1/1/1990, technology has improved and increased in usage. Manual sign-in sheets have been replaced with key-fobs and fingerprint readers. Pagers have been replaced with apps such as IamResponding. Online training classes are becoming the norm rather than the exception.
With any system or process, it is important to have proper controls to discourage abuse and/or fraud. As firefighters became able to electronically register their attendance at an event, controls had to be developed to ensure the data was not manipulated after the event.
One event that has largely been untouched by technology is a fire department meeting. Generally, fire department meetings have remained a manual process - you must physically show up to a specific location to attend the meeting. An old technology - conference calls - were sometimes utilized, but large meeting halls, and poor equipment made it hard for the person on the phone to be viable participant in the meeting, making it impractical. Software like Skype and Apple's Facetime significantly advanced the idea of virtual or online meetings, but it wasn't until more recently that Skype turned from a one-on-one conference app to a business-ready app able to facilitate meetings with 250 individual attendees. New software like Zoom has made multiple-participant video meetings affordable (free in most cases) and very easy.
With the restrictions we are all now under as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, fire departments have to cancel the traditional meeting. Many are now turning to Skype and Zoom for meetings. So it is natural that we have received questions about if a virtual meeting using Zoom or Skype should be eligible for points.
We must first keep in mind that the LOSAP statute defines a meeting to be a meeting of the fire department/company membership. So this is the context in which we will be operating - does a regular monthly membership meeting held through Zoom or Skype count for a point just like a traditional meeting?
In my view, there is no reason why it can't count for a point. The important thing is again, controls.
I have more experience with Zoom, but assume Skype has similar capabilities. The organizer of the Zoom meeting can record the meeting, and this recording is an essential control for documenting participation. A procedure should be set about how to document who attended the meeting - perhaps an email the same evening as the meeting to the person tasked with tracking the points, with the list of attendees. That list could be verified later with the recording.
Another recommended control would be to to, at least initially, limit points for virtual meetings held only on the night of the regularly-scheduled meeting. Given the ease of coordinating and attending a virtual meeting, there could be temptation to have them more frequently in order to boost points. We assume all fire department meetings, whether held in-person or virtually, should still follow the notification requirements in the by-laws, which could prevent "pop-up" virtual fire department meetings. But a LOSAP sponsor may want to consider putting a control in place, at least initially, to prevent the possibility of abuse.
As virtual meetings become more commonplace, it will become more natural and some of the concerns for abuse will likely be ironed out and eliminated. But in general, it makes sense to encourage the use of technology for meetings, especially when the participating virtually does not reduce the effectiveness of the participation of the firefighters. It just requires proper controls.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, directives from government agencies of all levels – Federal and State for certain, but also County and other local governments – have resulted in the cancellation of many events, including activities of our volunteer fire departments. Departments are cancelling regularly-scheduled meetings and drills. In-person training classes have also been cancelled, along with many fundraisers (especially surrounding St. Patrick’s Day).
This pandemic will likely also impact how departments respond to calls. In Saratoga County, officials met on March 17th to talk about how emergency services will be managed in the County. It was mentioned that fewer police and EMS personnel will be responding to fire emergencies, and that firefighters will largely not be responding to medical calls. It doesn’t take much of a leap to foresee the next step being a limit to the number of firefighters who respond to an emergency, in order to prevent “large gatherings”. If in a typical emergency there are three times the number of individuals responding than can actually participate in the call, it makes sense to encourage fewer individuals to respond, or at least try and coordinate a sufficient-enough response to handle the emergency and thereby limit the potential spread of the virus.
But for now, what we concretely know is that events are being cancelled. Most everything else is unknown, including if any of these cancelled events will be made up. The uncertainty and fluidity of our current situation leads to speculation on how long fire departments may have to run on a diminished capacity. Putting responses to the side, it is more than likely that a significant number of activities will not be postponed but cancelled altogether.
Under the current version of the law (Article 11-A), a municipality has no authority to grant points for activities that haven’t happened or to decrease the 50-point threshold required to earn a benefit. If there are no activities, there is no opportunity to earn points. We won’t know how significant of an impact this will have on the volunteers’ chances of earning 50 points during 2020 until this crisis is over. It may turn out that everyone will just have to be extra vigilant to attend activities during the 2nd half of the year. In all likelihood, earning 50 points will be difficult for some volunteers.
At this time, our suggestion is to track the training, meetings, drills, and miscellaneous activities that have been cancelled. This data will allow the municipal sponsor to assess how significantly impaired volunteers were from having opportunity to earn 50 points.
However, the calls present a different challenge. It would seem there are two scenarios – fire departments putting restrictions on the number of volunteers who respond, and/or volunteers becoming unable to respond because they either have the virus or are concerned about contracting it. Either way, this is an unusual time-period that may require a municipality to make some adjustments. One approach could be that a municipality identify the time period in which the COVID-19 pandemic impacted volunteers responding to calls. The required number of calls needed to earn points for department responses could then be determined two ways: (1) by including all calls for the year and all firefighter responses (i.e., the usual way), OR (2)by excluding calls and responses during this period. If a firefighter responded to the minimum percentage under either approach, then the volunteer would be credited with the points.
Depending on the severity of the situation, it is possible that special legislation will be required from the State to help guide municipalities. But given how low a priority the LOSAP point system is likely to be, it will probably be left to the municipality to determine about how to handle it locally.
We encourage you to reply with your comments and questions – the more input we are given regarding what you are experiencing at your local department, the better we can help develop reasonable solutions.
Thank you for all you are doing to serve now and in the future. It is an honor to work with so many people committed to their local community.