“Any time there’s a disaster, storms, anything,” said Bill Basdavanos, former chief of the Glen Cove Fire Department, “the city calls us, and we open up our doors to the community.”
Basdavanos recalled that during Hurricane Sandy, locals needed secure, dry shelter, and crowded the halls of the firehouse. “When you need us,” he said, “we’re there.”
On April 22, the department will open its doors for another reason: to host a recruitment event as part of the statewide RecruitNY, which aims to inspire people to get involved with their local volunteer emergency-service agencies. The Fire Explorers — a group for boys and girls ages 14 to 19, run by the department — will also be there, to offer information and take membership applications.
The GCFD’s membership has been in decline since the 1990s. From the 1960s through the ’80s, it maintained a membership of 140 — the maximum allowed by the city — with a two- to three-year waiting list. Today there are around 95 members, or about 66 percent of capacity.
According to the top brass, fewer members means more work for everyone. “With more people, the work gets more spread out,” said Andrew Carpenter, chief of the volunteer EMS corps. “It makes it a little easier on everyone.”
“With fewer people,” former Fire Chief David Spy said, “we all have to step up and do more.” That means more firehouse and engine maintenance, more time on call for emergencies, and more work on department committees.
Basdavanos said he doesn’t mind the work. For him, being a volunteer is its own reward. “I don’t think there’s anything greater than volunteering for an organization like this, doing good for the community,” he said. “We don’t need a pat on the back. It’s a love, it’s a passion. Any time you do something good for someone, that’s enough payment.”
This attitude of volunteerism may be on the decline. Spy said that he has noticed a trend in society toward self-interest. His son, a former Fire Explorer, now 26, told him that even though he had a great time in the program when he was younger, he wouldn’t join a fire department today. There would be nothing in it for him, he said, which, his father added, is a fairly typical attitude.
“Kids today want to join something because they’re looking for, ‘What’s in it for me?’” Spy continued. “Will it look good on a resume? Will it help get me into college? Sadly, that’s kind of the way it’s going. So we have to find a new way to bring the kids in, to teach them that volunteerism is a good thing by itself.”
What’s in it for me?
There are, in fact, tangible benefits to volunteering at the Fire Department. The Firemen’s Association of the State of New York offers full-ride scholarships for up to 80 college credits at all 30 SUNY schools. The state offers a $200 tax credit for volunteers, and Nassau County gives them a 10 percent tax reduction.
But most firefighters the Herald Gazette spoke to preferred to talk about the intangibles. Andrew Mellilo, 30, was one of the charter members of the Explorers program, which began in 2002, and is now a lieutenant in the department. He said that the program gave him skills that he probably wouldn’t have otherwise learned, including teamwork, dedication and courage.
When he was a leader in the Explorers, Mellilo recalled, he learned how to hold a meeting under the same guidelines for official government meetings. And, of course, he learned how to fight fires and how a fire department works, which made his transition from Explorer to member that much easier.
As for what keeps adult members coming back to the department decade after decade, Spy, Basdavanos and Carpenter agreed that being a volunteer member of a fire department is like being part of a family. “The more years you get here, the closer you get with people,” Spy said. “You grow to be like brothers and sisters.”
Carpenter said that the nature of the work creates that camaraderie. “Working with each other, backing each other, helping each other out,” he said. “Teamwork brings people together.”
First Assistant Chief Bob Retoske said, “We go above and beyond to take care of each other.” When members die, he explained, the department sends food to their families on Thanksgiving, and periodically maintains and decorates their gravesites.
Members’ nuclear families frequently intertwine with the department “family.” Ronald Pascucci said his daughter took her first steps in the firehouse hallway. Mellilo, whose father is a longtime member, fondly recalled playing games with other firefighters’ children at long-ago department holiday parties.
The recruitment event serves as a means to help that family grow. Members will give tours of the department’s engines and explain what it means to be a firefighter in Glen Cove.
“Just coming down here is showing the initiative that they at least have an interest in joining,” Carpenter said, though he added that interest doesn’t always translate into joining.
The best type of membership is long-term, Retoske said, and the recruitment event is a good place to engage prospective members’ interests, and at the same time give them enough information to determine whether they’ll be able to sustain an active membership.
“We show them around, we show them what we’re about,” Retoske said, “but we also want to show them what kind of commitment it is.”