Guest Spot: A fire commissioner reflects on his time

I went into the job knowing how much I had to teach them. I came out of it realizing how much I had learned.

There was a vacancy on the Orient Fire District Board, and the remaining commissioners asked if I would consider filling out the term. There had been an audit by the State Comptroller’s Office and several issues had been identified that needed some attention. I had been very active in other community projects, but was an outsider to the “firematic” world.

While I had several cousins who served as firefighters, including two who died in the line of duty, I had never been a firefighter or an emergency medical technician. In my late 60s, I was a bit too old and infirm to start now. Perhaps I would bring an outsider’s point of view to the commissioner’s role that might be of value.

The Fire District is not the same as the fire department. The district is made up of elected officials (commissioners) and a few part-time staff who are responsible for setting up and funding firefighting and emergency services for the community. They raise taxes, collected for them by the town. They build and maintain fire stations, purchase equipment and set broad policies for the fire and emergency departments that will provide those services. Commissioners attend monthly meetings, pay bills, maintain facilities and equipment and keep up to date on the laws and best practices. They do not get paid. Not surprisingly, the commissioners are usually drawn from the ranks of active or retired firefighters and emergency personnel, but not always.

The fire departments and emergency services departments, often combined, provide the actual fire and rescue services on which we rely. In our local communities, these are currently all volunteers, from the chiefs, who are in charge of all emergency operations, all the way down to probationary rookies. They are our plumbers and our teachers, our retired executives and our young road workers. Mothers, brothers, police officers and cashiers.

They raise their hands and say, “I’m willing to spend dozens of hours to learn how to keep you safe, handle a medical emergency, protect your homes and businesses. I’ll show up evenings and weekends to keep training, to do it right and fast and smart. I’ll roll out of bed at 3 a.m. when the siren and my beeper go off, to be there if you need me.”

They also don’t get paid. They do it because they care. There are a few benefits — a very small pension if they stay in for at least five years. Some health benefits. Access to a small clubhouse where they can exchange tall tales about their bravest moments and greatest gaffes (and, no, your tax dollars don’t buy drinks and parties — that comes out of their own pockets). Sadly, but not surprisingly, it is difficult to find enough volunteers to take on these hard jobs with so few rewards. We desperately need more folks to step up and join.

After two decades as a government manager, and then several decades as a lawyer, I came to the commissioner’s job knowing a lot about running organizations and navigating complex issues. I came to help with the administration, the policies and the contracts. I think I did help a fair amount. But I also came to the job knowing so little about what the district and the department did, and how they did it.

My colleagues on the board and the officers and personnel in the department were skilled and smart. Most of them had already spent decades learning about protecting us and managing the organizations providing those services. And they did it after hours, after they spent full days earning a living and caring for their families. They had an understanding about cutting open a wrecked car, and controlling bleeding until the hospital, finding someone to fix a pumper truck and someone to clean smoke-stained turnout gear. 

Small organizations can often seem insular, a bit cliquish. And jobs that demand hard work and pose risks, even more so. Sometimes the members of the group find it hard to explain to outsiders exactly what they do, or why they do it. As an outsider, I often asked questions that I thought my neighbors would like answers to — “Why are we doing this?” “How does that work?” “What do other districts and departments do?” “Is it worth that cost?”

Perhaps most importantly, I often asked, “Will this improve the health and safety of our community and our department members?” And almost always, I was satisfied with the answers.

I came into the job believing my education, skills, experience, point of view would benefit them. I left the job awed by the dedication, expertise, effort and community involvement of the women and men who served on the board and in the department, the immeasurable benefit that they gave to me and my neighbors. I had no idea.

I served four years as a commissioner. They were years well spent. It was an honor.

Mr. Hanlon ran unsuccessfully last fall for the Southold Town Board.