Firefighters battle a blaze on Pulaski Street Jan. 25, 2023. Photo: Peter Blasl

Voters in the Riverhead Fire District should get out to vote on Tuesday to support a ballot proposition authorizing the district to enhance a longevity benefit for active volunteers in the Riverhead Fire Department.

Volunteer firefighters devote big chunks of their lives to protecting our community, our homes and businesses — indeed our very lives out of pure dedication to duty. They leave their homes and places of work at all times of the day and night, in all kinds of weather, as soon as their pagers buzz. Their dedication to duty means they are often absent for important family milestones, because alarms are sounded when their skills are needed, and that doesn’t conform to family or social schedules.

Our firefighters may be volunteers, but make no mistake: they are not amateurs. To enter the fire service and to continue to be part of the service, they are required to undergo many hours of rigorous training covering every aspect of the skills and knowledge they need to be effective firefighters as well as to protect their own safety — which they routinely place on the line to protect others’ lives and property. Take a look at courses offered by the Suffolk County Fire Academy for a sense of how extensive firefighters’ training is.

For volunteer firefighters, there’s very little personal financial reward for their multitude of sacrifices.

Firefighters who own their homes in the Town of Riverhead — an increasingly difficult achievement thanks to escalating real estate values and the lack of jobs that pay enough to allow local residents to buy their first homes and carry the cost of mortgages and property taxes — are entitled to a 10% reduction in assessed value of their homes for purposes of assessing town and school property taxes.

Then there’s the monthly benefit for length of active service. The existing program provides Riverhead volunteer firefighters a $20 per month payment for each year of active service. There is a maximum of 20 years service credit — so, a maximum benefit of $400 per month.

Neither the assessed value exemption amount nor the length of service benefit amount have been changed in many years.

The fire district is hoping voters will support the increase in maximum benefit to $30 per month, based on an increased maximum service credit of up to 50 years, because they hope this will provide incentive for people to volunteer to join and stay with the department. The proposal on the ballot will also reduce the eligible age from 65 to 62 years.

According to the district’s actuarial analysis, the revised benefit terms will increase the fire district budget by $300,000 per year.

This is not a heavy lift for taxpayer in the scheme of things, even in the current economic climate. The increase represents a fraction of the district’s overall budget, despite its reliance on a volunteer firefighting workforce.

Taxpayers must beware of the day when the community may need to rely on fire department with paid firefighters whose salaries and benefits, including pensions, will be paid through property taxes. If you don’t think that’s a realistic possibility, think again. Our community’s demographics are changing. We are getting older as young adults increasingly settle elsewhere because housing costs are out of reach, employment opportunities that pay a living wage are few and far between, and young adults who do live here must work two or even three jobs to make ends meet.

While the Riverhead Fire Department is still able to attract a more or less adequate number of volunteers to do the job, the writing is on the wall. As housing costs skyrocketed in nearby towns, other fire departments in the area are already facing a membership crisis, as the remaining population became older due to the same factors confronting Riverhead now.

Anything we can do as a community to promote volunteer recruitment and retention is worth the effort and expense.

Get out and vote yes Tuesday on the ballot proposition. Even if you never vote in fire district elections, this is not one you should sit out. The polls are open Tuesday from 3 to 9 p.m. at Riverhead Fire Department Headquarters, 540 Roanoke Avenue, Riverhead.

We all owe our emergency service volunteers a huge debt of gratitude. Now’s our chance to say thank you.

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