When severe weather impacts a region, we know that is when communities step up to help neighbors in need. Sometimes these efforts reach the news, like recently when Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen needed help clearing his driveway so he could catch a plane to Detroit for the game. But most times, it is what I experienced as a new, young, and inexperienced homeowner 20 years ago. We were having a significant snow event (18+ inches) and my “snowblower” was meant to handle 6 inches or so and kept overheating. I had about 200 feet of driveway to clear and it was past 9:00 PM. I didn’t know how I was going to dig out. My hero was a random person with a plow truck that saw me struggling, and in 15-20 minutes had completely cleared the snow. He didn’t ask for anything, just said he was glad to help and went on his way.
While my volunteer hero was not a volunteer firefighter, when severe weather is in the forecast, those of us who live in communities served by volunteer firefighters know they will be on stand-by, ready to assist when called.
This becomes evident when events like the most recent event in/around Orchard Park (home of the Bills and about 15 miles south of Buffalo) this past week, when the surrounding communities were hit with 4+ feet of lake-effect snow. This is eerily similar to another lake-effect snow storm in November 2014, which the locals call Snowvember. During that storm, the same general area was hit with 5 to 7 feet of snow! There have been other storms like Hurricane Sandy and Irene, as well as localized nor’easters or ice storms that create significant demand on volunteer fire departments.
When the proverbial dust settles from these storms, one of the issues that usually presents itself for those departments with a LOSAP is what to do, if anything, with the significant number of calls that occurred during a short period of time. Sometimes, dispatchers can’t even keep up with tracking the number of calls. In some cases, it is not unusual for a fire department to have 10% or more increase in the number of annual calls as a result of one significant storm. It would not be unusual to see a department that typically handles 150 fire calls a year to experience 30 calls over a two-day period, which represents a 20% increase in call volume.
Since the LOSAP points for department responses is based on attending a minimum percentage of the total calls for the year, a volunteer who misses out on responding to these calls could find that he/she is now short of the calls necessary to earn those points. It could be hard to make up those points when the event happens close to the end of the year. However, there also needs to be a recognition that there could be a few volunteers who were not on track to earn their 25 points for calls but were able to respond during the severe weather period, and now have enough calls to earn the 25 points.
The statute does not address this scenario, and so LOSAP sponsors will have to decide how best to navigate this locally. Using the example of a department that now has 180 calls compared to the more typical 150, one answer is to just recognize that the 30 extra total calls means 3 extra calls needed to earn 25 points. If a department normally averages 150 a year, it could expect at least 10 or so calls in December and any volunteer who could be short can just make sure he/she responds to more calls to meet the minimum.
If a sponsor would like to have a creative way to work around this situation, the following approach could be considered.
First, at the end of the year calculate the number of calls required to earn 25 points. In the example given, the number would be 18 (10% of 180) and determine the annual points as usual. Anyone who has 50+ points would receive credit for the year.
Second, if the sponsor is concerned that some volunteers were hurt by the event, the sponsor should determine the time period in which call volume was abnormally high. It will likely be a one- or two-day period, but like Snowvember or last week’s storm, could extend three or four days. This period is considered the “event window.” Take the calls that occurred during the event window and remove them from the calculation of the minimum number of calls required to earn 25 points. This means remove them from the total number of department calls, but also remove them from the volunteer’s responses as well. If the calls are removed from the total call volume, responses to those calls should not be counted in meeting the minimum required number. In the previous example, that would remove 30 department calls and bring the total down to 150. Then, re-run the annual points totals with those calls removed. If removing those calls results in someone earning the 25 call points and then the total 50 points for the year, award that person service credit for the year.
Again, using the example of 180 total calls for the year, and 150 outside the event window, someone who responded to 18+ calls during the year would receive 25 call points, and someone who responded to 15+ calls outside the event window would receive 25 call points. Someone who meets both would only receive the maximum of 25 points.
A point should also be made about a curious effect an unexpected call increase could create. When the total call volume crosses over the 500 threshold (as well as 1,000 and 1,500), the law stipulates that the response requirement drops from 10% to 7.5%. If a department had 470 calls outside the event window, a volunteer would have to respond to 47 to earn 25 points. But if call volume spiked to 505 as a result of the weather event, then the required number of calls to earn 25 points drops to only 38. In that event, it would likely be in all of the volunteers’ best interest to use the total calls during the year to determine the response requirement to earn the 25 call points.
Any sponsor considering this type of alternative should review it with their local attorney, as this is not provided for in the law and would be a creative solution to deal with an anomaly event. This article is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such.
NOTE: the impact of these storms would be less if sponsors had another option for awarding points. Please read our prior post and please complete the very quick questionnaire if you support our proposal! Click HERE to read that post.