By Karl Grossman
Three Shelter Island men have kicked off a campaign to provide financial assistance to the Suffolk County Fire Academy. For more than seven decades it has been the institution that trains all the members of the 109 fire departments in Suffolk.
In recent years it has been hurting financially.
“Fire training for firefighters by firefighters,” is the greeting you receive when telephoning the academy, the official training center for the more than 11,000 firefighters in Suffolk.
Arthur P. Bloom, a member of the Shelter Island Fire Department for 22 years, said he decided “to get involved in trying to save” the academy “from its financial difficulties” by creating a foundation to which people and companies can donate funds and make in-kind contributions (goods or services). It is named the Fire Academy Foundation and the IRS has designated it a 501-c-3 charitable foundation enabling donations to be tax deductible.
Mr. Bloom serves as executive director. The other leaders of the foundation are its technical director, John R. D’Amato, chief of the Shelter Island Fire Department, and James M. Staudenraus, a Shelter Islander with extensive experience in fundraising, its director of development. All are unpaid volunteers.
Mr. Bloom explains that as a firefighter for many years, “I understand how critical effective training is to firefighter safety and public safety. After years of successive cuts to the budget of the Suffolk County Fire Academy, I recognized the urgent need for new funding sources.” He is also a member of the county’s Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services Commission.
The academy, located in Yaphank, is run by the Vocational Education and Extension Board (VEEB), a non-profit entity created in 1943 by New York State. Its chairman is William Sanok of Riverhead, the highly-respected, former long-time executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk as well as a Riverhead firefighter.
There have been continuous reductions in financial support to the academy from Suffolk County government as well as the state. “These cuts have had a tremendous impact on our operation and forced us to eliminate much of our specialized training,” says Robert E. Holly, the academy’s executive director. Having to be eliminated because of the cuts, he said, have been programs in Water Dive Rescue, Hazardous Materials, Technical Rescue and Natural Disaster Emergency Response. Other programs have needed to be reduced.
Mr. Holly has been a firefighter in Suffolk for 43 years. He’s past chief of the East Quogue Fire Department. He was also president of Suffolk County Fire Chiefs, Southampton Town Fire Chiefs and the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone this summer proposed the termination of the county’s $2 million-a-year contract with the VEEB to operate the academy and, instead, have the county run it directly. Mr. Bellone maintained that direct county control would allow for more classes.
It’s “a recipe for disaster,” says Mr. Holly. The experienced existing staff would end up being replaced by “entry level people with no idea how the operation runs here. It’s a complicated process and it has taken the personnel years to learn a myriad of things.”
Mr. Bellone’s move “doesn’t make any sense,” says Mr. Sanok.
There is concern among members of the Vocational Education and Extension Board that political appointees would be put in charge of the academy.
Mr. Bellone, following the criticism, backed off on his initial plan of having VEEB cease running the academy at the end of 2013, but recently sent a bill to the Suffolk Legislature to have that happen at the end of June 2014. Legislator Kate Browning of Shirley, who chairs the panel’s Public Safety Committee, is opposed to the Bellone stance and with several other lawmakers is seeking to have the academy continue under VEEB.
Meanwhile, the new Fire Academy Foundation, no matter how things work out, is seeking new sources of funds for an academy which provides vital education on life-and-death issues to Suffolk firefighters who, on a volunteer basis, risk their lives to protect lives and property. The foundation also intends to work to restore cuts which have been made. The mailing address for this worthy cause is: Fire Academy Foundation, Box 474, Shelter Island, NY 11964. Its email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.