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.
Over the years, we have fielded many questions that begin with "Can we" Most of the time, these "can we" questions are about awarding points for certain activities. We decided to create a Memorandum outlining four amendments to Section 217 of the General Municipal Law that would address the most frequent "can we" questions. In short, our proposed amendments would amend:
Each year the associations that support the fire service in New York gather to create the "Issues of United Concern". This document outlines a legislative agenda for the upcoming year. If you would like one or all of our proposals to be considered when this agenda is developed, please click on this link to complete a two-minute questionnaire:
We will submit your response to ensure your opinion and support is documented. Unless these organizations hear from the people, departments and municipalities they represent, progress will not be made. It takes approximately 2 minutes to complete the questionnaire.
Thank you, and please contact us with questions!
With greater frequency we are handling questions about a fire department wanting to implement duty crews to ensure they have adequate staffing to respond to emergencies. This is a common practice with ambulance squads, but I'm sure anyone reading this blog doesn't need us to explain how operationally different an ambulance call is vs a fire call. That said, the types of calls that fire department are responding too are changing - they aren't always structure fires were the whole department is needed. And moreover, it isn't ideal for 20 members to respond to an automatic alarm or something that could be easily handled by much fewer volunteers.
It makes sense for a department to adopt a duty-crew program. The question we get, of course, is how does this fit into the point system.
There are two things to address: (1) Can someone get a point (or points) just for serving on the duty-crew? (2) How does a person serving just for a specific time period reach the minimum call requirement to earn 25 points?
Ultimately, we believe the law should be amended. That is the best answer. Since ambulance squads already operate in this way, Articles 11-AA and 11-AAA have options for awarding points for "tours of duty" (1 point for a 6-hour shift) and also include an alternative way to award points for calls (up to 1/2 point per call). Since these options are already available in State Law, it would make sense to essentially "cut and paste" that authority into Article 11-A. Firefly has written proposed amendment to Article 11-A and have provided them to the State-wide associations for consideration. If you would like more details, please contact us! But ultimately, a proposed amendment to the law does not help a fire department today grappling with this issue. So what can be done?
To award points for someone serving on a duty-crew, the current statute would seem to allow two options:
Perhaps more complicated is the department responses. Currently, a volunteer must to attend a minimum percentage of calls for the year to earn 25 points for each type of call. In a department with less than 500 calls, that percentage is 10%. If a volunteer signed up for a duty-crew every Sunday night, and only 5% of the total fire department calls happen on a Sunday night, that person would fall short of the 10% requirement unless he/she responded at other times as well. Or, if 15% of the calls happen on a Sunday night, those on the duty-crew might make the minimum percentage but other volunteers not on the duty-crew would have fewer number of total calls to respond to in order to reach their minimum (85% in this scenario).
The facts and circumstances of the local department will go a long way in deciding what to do about the calls. One approach could just be that the requirement is 10% (or lower as call volume exceeds 500) and a volunteer who takes enough duty-crews, or responds when there is no duty-crew assigned, will attend enough calls to meet the minimum percentage. Ultimately, we would expect some calls cannot be handled by the duty-crew and the entire department will have to be activated. We assume the purpose of the duty-crew would be to handle routine emergencies where a smaller crew of 4-8 people can adequately handle the situation. But structure fires or some other larger-scale operation will happen where the entire membership will be needed. That will provide additional opportunities.
The only other available option is the new amendment that was just made to the statute. You can read more about it in one of our past blog posts HERE. There are many reasons why we are not a fan of this new law, which are outlined in the article. But it could have a benefit here.
This new statute says that if response protocols are adopted that set different response requirements for different units or groups of the fire department, that those units/groups only have to attend the minimum percentage of the calls assigned to those units/groups. Typically a duty-crew would not be a static, defined, unit. The personnel on call during any one tour of duty would likely change week-to-week. If they were a static crew, then the idea of a crew being assigned the calls during that period makes this option something worth considering. However, it would seem anyone on a duty-crew should, in theory, respond to 100% of the calls they were assigned during the period. Or at least it would be certainty that they would attend 10% of them! Therefore, 25 points for calls would basically be an automatic.
It would seem that ultimately using this approach would be an administrative challenge and an inequitable way to earn 25 points for calls. Trying to determine what calls each individual were assigned and what units or groups they are a part of at any one time would likely prove difficult. A lot depends on the individual department and how calls are handled. But this is the only solution, under the current law, that would allow a sponsor to try and address how points could be earned for department responses when duty-crews are implemented.
Given that we have no expertise in operating a volunteer fire department, we likely missed some things! We'd love your feedback and insight - contact us with your questions or additional feedback.
And as always, we suggest running all of this by your attorney, as this information is meant to be a general, theoretic discussion and we do not provide legal advice.