Extinguishing the Fredonia fire debate

In my continuing attempt to discuss local issues in this column I have tried to ask the questions that many of the residents and taxpayers have suggested I ask. To date, I have spoken with various mayors, supervisors, trustees, commissioners, police chiefs, the county executive and the CEO of the Chautauqua County IDA.

I can now add Fredonia Fire Chief Kurt Maytum to that long list of elected and appointed officials. (I will be speaking with Dunkirk’s Fire Chief Mike Edwards soon.)

The fire department in the village seems to be under a particularly large microscope these days. Many say adding more paid firefighters is simply a political game and the fire chief is trying to feather his own nest by invoking fear into the residents the department serves.

There are others who claim the numbers presented are questionable at best, and have implied that taking over the emergency transport services is fiscally irresponsible. The fire chief has been accused of stating the village will actually receive up to $130,000 this 2014-15 by taking over the transport services currently handled by Alstar Ambulance. The claim remains, however, that even with that projected revenue it won’t pay for the anticipated $140,000 to $160,000 in added salary costs.

And what about the lack of transparency and the run-around that the town of Pomfret has suggested they are getting?

I asked Maytum these questions and more. The following is what he had to say.

“I want the public to hear the most accurate information possible.” Maytum said. “The department has been asking for additional paid firefighters for over five years, this is not new. The village’s fiscal year runs from June to June. We budgeted for two additional firefighters in both 2013-14 and 2014-15; they were not hired until January 2015. This request should not be tied to the transporting activity. Furthermore, the department has not claimed that the revenue from the billing of the transport services will pay for these two salaries rather the revenue would help to offset the costs.”

So, if the department is not making money by taking on this transporting service, then why do it I asked? Maytum told me that the department has always provided medical transport services, but now they are “being pushed into more of this activity” and “75 percent of all calls coming into the department are for medical emergencies. Regardless of the transporting issue, we have needed additional staff for a minimum of five years. We need to be able to keep two firefighters in the fire hall around the clock. The two individuals we hired in January were needed even if we didn’t participate in the EMS transport services.”

According to Maytum, medical emergency transport calls have risen every year. Currently the department transports Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays between the hours of 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and whenever the commercial service, Alstar, is not available. “But this is not easy when there is only one man in the station.” Maytum said. “People think we are the back-up to Alstar when it comes to transporting medical emergencies, but nothing can be further from the truth. The village of Fredonia’s Fire Department is the receiver of the call when there is an emergency and we frequently become the primary transporters in those instances. Alstar has become more and more unavailable lately due to the higher volume of inter-facility transports. We incur costs for the fuel, insurance, medical supplies and the personnel involved, and it should be noted that the Fire Department does not collect a co-pay from village or town of Pomfret residents; we accept whatever the insurance company pays. Making money or even breaking even would be great, but there is more to this than the money, there are the lives of those whom we are there to help.”

As for the projected revenue of $130,000 for the medical transport services, this figure came from one of the village trustees, not from the fire department. “I have said we will work toward this number, but there can’t be any guarantees when it comes to this sort of thing.” Maytum said.

What about the question of empire building I asked. Maytum said, “No one is trying to build an empire. We are trying to build a department that keeps the residents of the village and the town safe and that can actually save money in the long run.”

When it comes to saving money, my mind immediately goes to how can we reduce the far too many governments in our county whether by consolidation or sharing of services. Maytum said he is not opposed to sharing services, or even looking into sharing facilities down the road, but it “will take work.”

“The two departments, Dunkirk and Fredonia, are very different. Fredonia has nine paid firefighters and about 100 volunteers covering a wider area with the town of Pomfret than Dunkirk. There has been talk about our building falling down, well it isn’t.” He said, “The building needs some exterior repairs and the heating system is not up to par, but those things can be taken care of with some maintenance.”

Every community’s budget is strapped for cash these days, and Fredonia is no exception. It doesn’t appear the community is in favor of adding to the fire department’s payroll. Further, some have said the recent department hires are based on “who you know,” I asked the chief to answer this.

“Being a firefighter can be termed as generational. Look at the different police and fire departments in this area and elsewhere. My father was a firefighter, I was a volunteer at 18, and have spent over 33 years in a fire department in one position or another. The village does not hire based on who someone knows; they hire from a competitive Civil Service list. They look at credentials. The two firefighters who were hired in January came to us as certified paramedics and had already completed 11 weeks at the fire academy saving the village money. If they have a parent or relative who is a firefighter, then that is OK too.”

What about the current request to hire additional firefighters? Maytum told me that he is requesting three part-time employees to work 20 hours per week each. These individuals will assist with the emergency transporting as well as cover for vacations and absences. He also said, “We currently have three full-time firefighters who are eligible for retirement, we need to have a succession plan to replace them when they do. It takes up to one full year to get a part-time firefighter up to speed.”

When it comes to the issue of the town of Pomfret, the chief said, “We meet monthly with representatives from the village and town and I believe things are now moving in the right direction. I am proud to be included in these discussions.”

No one wants to live in a community where there is not a credible and competent police or fire department. I asked Maytum what he says to the critics who say that it is the civil servant who is taking advantage of the residents by invoking fears of lawlessness and/or their house burning down? The chief was ready for me on this one. “No one firefighter can stop a house from burning down, but if you want to see what it might look like when one tries, go to www.firefighternation.com and search First Due With So Few and you will see an example of how critical firefighter staffing truly is.”

Finally, I asked the chief if there was anything else he would like to say, and he said, “I am a fire chief because I love it. The mission of the Fredonia Fire Department is to provide the best possible emergency medical services and fire protection for the residents of the village, town of Pomfret, and the surrounding communities.” I can only hope.

Have a great day.

Vicki Westling is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com