Vols get added protections under new state law

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Northampton Flanders Volunteer Ambulance Corps first responder Ronnie Hintze (left), driver Matt Deerkoski (center) and paramedic Marco Guecha take the accident 'victim' to an ambulance after it was removed from the car with the 'jaws of life' during a demonstration at the corps headquarters on Bell Avenue in Flanders Saturday afternoon. They enlisted one new member Saturday and three during the week.
Northampton Flanders Volunteer Ambulance Corps first responder Ronnie Hintze (left), driver Matt Deerkoski (center) and paramedic Marco Guecha handle an accident ‘victim’ to an ambulance during a demonstration at the corps headquarters in 2012. (Barbaraellen Koch file photo)

Local fire department and ambulance chiefs are praising recently signed legislation that protects volunteer firefighters and EMTs from losing their regular jobs for missing work while responding to disasters and crises.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law Sept. 23. The new law provides excused leave for volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers who are called away to help out during a state of emergency.

Those volunteers will be granted unpaid excused leave for the duration of their service during a declared state of emergency, according to the legislation.

Employers can request that volunteers provide them with documentation showing they are on the fire department roster and the protection can be withdrawn if the employer can prove that the volunteer’s absence would cause “undue hardship” to the business.

Still, some at North Fork fire departments said the law would provide peace of mind for seasoned volunteers and new members alike.

Cutchogue Fire Department Chief Antone Berkoski said some are “reluctant” to join the department.

“They want to help the community but they’re afraid to get fired or they don’t want to have to take the days [off],” he said. This new legislation may make it easier to recruit new members, he said.

Joseph Raynor, Riverhead Fire Department’s fire chief, called the bill “good legislation.”

“Why should [your job] be held in jeopardy when you’re helping out your community?” he asked. While it’s comforting to know his volunteers will have their jobs protected while answering emergencies, Mr. Raynor said most managers in town are understanding in times of crisis.

“Riverhead businesses are very good about it,” he said. “But when you have to run across the businessman who’s not friendly to the fire services, it’s good to protect the [firefighters].”

Southold Fire Chief Peggy Killian also praised the new law.

“I think if you’re volunteering to help the community, you shouldn’t have to worry,” she said.

When contacted this week, Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance assistant chief Lisa Corwin said she hadn’t heard about the new law.

“We as volunteers want to be able to help when there is a disaster, and the last thing we should have to think about is how our job is going to be affected by volunteering to help others,” she said. “Fortunately, most of the members of RVAC are very dedicated, and whenever there is a crisis or threat of a big storm, we seem to have plenty of members to help the public, so this law will definitely help everyone.”