Riverhead Fire Department Lt. Justin Berry, Gold Medal of Valor recipient, surrounded by officers and commissioners of the department at the Sept. 27 ceremony. Photo: Quint Nigro

Riverhead Fire District voters will decide on Tuesday whether to enhance an existing benefit program that aims to help the fire department recruit and retain volunteers in an era when staffing volunteer fire departments is increasingly challenging.

The Riverhead Fire District’s Length of Service Award Program, known also as LOSAP, was put in place in 1997 and has not been amended since.

The program currently provides volunteer firefighters a benefit of $20 per month for each year of active service in the department. There is a maximum of 20 years service credit and a maximum monthly benefit of $400. Volunteers become eligible for the benefit at age 65.

The proposition on Tuesday’s ballot would increase the benefit to $30 per month for each year of active service in the department for years of service earned beginning in 2025. It would also increase the maximum years of service credit to 50 years and the maximum monthly benefit to $1,500. It would also lower the eligibility age to 62. The program will also guarantee 10 years (120 payments) for each member that reaches entitlement age. The beneficiary of a member who dies before collecting all 120 payments will receive the remainder of the member’s benefit in a lump-sum payment.

The change will help the department retain volunteers, especially those who sign up at a young age, beyond 20 years of service, said Ed Carey, chairman of the Board of Commissioners of the Riverhead Fire District. It will also help the department recruit new members by offering a tangible and meaningful financial incentive to become a volunteer, according to Carey.

It’s getting tougher to recruit and keep new members all the time, Carey said.

“We’re always looking for new members, with the number of alarms going up and more training requirements — especially with all of the building, especially on Main Street,” Carey said in a phone interview Thursday. “With the apartments, there are different ways of fighting multi-floor apartment fires (compared to) single- or two-story residential fires. There is a lot more involved,” he said. It requires new and more training.

“And with a lot more of the apartments now all over town that increases our fire calls, whether it’s automatic alarms, or assisting the ambulance getting people to the hospital. Sometimes they call and ask for assistance,” Carey said.

Incidents requiring fire department response have increased 30% over the past decade, from 1,127 in 2013 to 1,462 in 2022, according to data provided by RFD on its website. The numbers have gone up each year and are on track to do the same in 2023.

“So the demands on firefighters are definitely increasing,” Carey said.

At the same time, training requirements have grown more rigorous in general, on top of new training to learn how to handle lithium battery fires, which is important with the likelihood of large battery storage facilities being built in the district, Carey said.

“Compared to 20 or 30 years ago, it’s a much more time-consuming training program, almost like college-type credits you’re getting because it’s so much more involved,” Carey said, between classroom training and hands-on training, “it’s much more than in used to be, especially for a new member.”

Also at the same time, membership is decreasing — which Carey believes is likely connected to the additional demands on the time of volunteers, between the number of calls in a very busy department and the additional training for fighting fires with new types of construction, new uses and new types of construction materials, he said.

“It’s a lot of time away from home, a lot of missed meals, missed holidays and family gatherings. The pager goes off and there they go again.

“So we would like to have as many available bodies as possible,” Carey said. “We are not full right now. We would like use this tool to help bolster the ranks and fill out a full roster for all six companies,” he said.

The Riverhead Fire District Commissioners approved the plan and the proposition on Tuesday’s ballot at a meeting in October. The district calculates the budget impact of the enhancement to be a budget increase of $300,000 per year for at least 15 years.

District voters on Tuesday will also elect two commissioners to fill two vacancies on the board of commissioners.

The polls are open Tuesday from 3 to 9 p.m. at Riverhead Fire Department Headquarters, 540 Roanoke Avenue, Riverhead.

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