The Firemen’s Association of the State of New York likes to hold its annual legislative conferences at fire department halls in out-of-the-way places.
Last year it was at Red Rock in the Catskills. On Saturday, members gathered in one of the most remote but scenic corners of Saratoga County — at the Edinburg Volunteer Fire Co., not far from Great Sacandaga Lake.
While the location was out of the way, some of the things the members talked about are central to the health and safety of the state’s more than 100,000 volunteer firefighters.
For instance, there’s a bill filed in Albany that would make it a felony for landlords to illegally subdivide within apartments — creating crowded conditions that could become deadly if there were a fire.
“Long ago, this was a New York City issue, but now you see it across the state,” said Paul Zuber, FASNY’s legislative representative in Albany.
“Anyplace you have poor people or college students you see it,” he said.
Zuber said the illegal apartment issue has gained traction since The New York Times earlier this year did a story about apartments being illegally cut up into smaller units.
“It’s a whole large group of people who are endangered because landlords are trying to make money,” Zuber said.
“We’ve had examples of illegal conversions that have resulted in the deaths of tenants; it’s only a matter of time before it’s three tenants and two firefighters,” said Jim Hartwick of Nyack, chairman of the FASNY Hudson Valley chapter’s legislative committee.
“We want to be proactive, not reactive,” Hartwick said. “New York state is notorious for being reactive.”
Zuber said the state Department of State is now looking at ways of addressing the issue, and has consulted with FASNY.
Currently, building owners who illegally subdivide an apartment can face fines for building code violations, but not criminal charges.
The FASNY proposal, which has been introduced in both the state Senate and Assembly, would create a new felony charge called “endangering the welfare of fire or emergency personnel.”
Among the other issues volunteer firefighters hope to see addressed this year in Albany:
–Obtaining cancer insurance coverage for volunteer firefighters, similar to that which career firefighters have. It would make the assumption that certain cancers are tied to chemical exposures from firefighting; some certain heart and lung conditions are already covered.
“It’s a matter of fairness,” Zuber said. “How do you tell volunteers who are protecting people that they’re not covered?”
The state Conference of Mayors has opposed the coverage plan because of the possible cost.
The cancer coverage measure has passed the state Senate twice, but remains locked in committee in the Assembly.
– Giving volunteer fire companies that also operate ambulances the right to bill patients and insurance companies for providing ambulance service.
FASNY recently completed an economic impact study that found the state’s volunteer firefighters save the state $3.3 billion annually, compared to the cost if they had to be replaced by full-time professional firefighters.
“If everyone had to be paid, a lot of places wouldn’t even be able to have fire departments,” said Wilson McKay of Chatham, president of the Mohawk-Hudson chapter.
Saturday’s meeting was a joint session for FASNY’s Hudson Valley and Hudson-Mohawk chapters, which between them serve volunteer firefighters in 24 counties in eastern New York.
“The goal is to get the legislative message of FASNY out to the public and the Legislature,” said David Chapman, legislative chairman of the Hudson-Mohawk chapter.