Wendy Liberatore and Sara Cline
Times Union, Albany, N.Y.
RENSSELAER – A city firefighter's decision to alert the state that volunteers are behind on mandated training prompted the fire chief to forbid the crew of 18 volunteers from rushing into burning buildings.
“The training will be upgraded,” Mayor Daniel Dwyer said. “We will do it in a couple of weeks.”
Dwyer said a “disgruntled” firefighter contacted the state's Public Employees Safety Health Bureau to complain about the lack of training, which led to Chief Bill Hummel's decision to sideline the volunteers.
The restriction put on the volunteers and not on the 12 paid firefighters reflects an ongoing battle between the volunteers and members of the paid firefighters' union, said Michael Stammel, one of the volunteer firefighters and a Rensselaer County legislator.
Stammel said that the paid staff is trying to squeeze out the volunteers, an effort that escalated into a 2016 lawsuit filed by Rensselaer Professional Firefighters Local 2643 against the volunteers. The suit seeks to restore city funds to the paid staff that were for equipment and other things the volunteers needed.
Stammel said paid firefighters give short notice to volunteers about mandatory training.
“We are told the night before or the day of,” Stammel said. “Unless we are at the firehouse all the time, we usually can't make it. Our training has been hit or miss. This has been going on for a while.”
He said that he and most of the other volunteer firefighters have not received annual training and tests, including hazardous-material and workplace-violence training as well as fitness tests, for years. Often, he said, training is done outside of the area.
“We shouldn't have to go outside of the city to get the training,” Stammel said. “These trainings and tests are important.”
The restrictions on volunteers follows two major city fires, one at a housing development in April and one that killed a grandmother, mother and son in March.
The Commissioner of Public Works Dominic Tagliento said that all the volunteers will receive an eight-hour refresher course in two separate sections this week and next. They will then be allowed to go back inside burning buildings.
“It was a misunderstanding,” Tagliento said. “After they catch up, we will make sure the volunteers get training on a steady basis. But there was no time that anyone was at risk. These are highly trained firefighters who would do what they were trained to do.”
It's not just training. Stammel said volunteers are supplied with subpar equipment, have no lockers at the firehouse and no keys to the firehouse. They are not alerted about a fire until the paid staff is notified, he said.
“We just want to be treated equally,” Stammel said. “Treated equally communication wise, equipment wise and respect wise. We are all employees of the city, even though we are not paid, we should be treated equally.”
Dwyer said the dispute between fire department factions has “been blown out of proportion.”
“We have fights,” Dwyer said. “It's been handed over to the lawyers.”
Hummel did not return a call for comment.
“If a neighbor's house is burning, you're going to help no matter what the chief may say,” Stammel said. “It's in our blood. It's an obligation, not a job, to take care of our community.”
©2018 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)
McClatchy-Tribune News Service