In late August, a team of Long Island volunteer firefighters sped down a paved track during a training drill, hanging onto the back of a modified racecar. The vehicle veered into a guardrail, according to Nassau County police, ejecting all four firefighters.
Two months later, one of the injured volunteers is still fighting to regain his mobility, and taxpayers are beginning to question why their money is being used to fund a dangerous and costly kind of racing.
“I don’t know where those race cars come from and what money they use to buy it," said Elmont resident Carmina Rivera. "But if they’re using the taxpayers’ money for such things, I don’t think it’s the right thing to do."
The practice session that ended in disaster was part of a decades-old tradition called drill team racing.
For a century or more, Long Island firefighters have held weekend exhibitions where volunteer companies test their speed, including one where participants zoom down a drag strip and then hop off the back of a racecar to hoist a ladder. One of the team members then climbs the ladder. Being the fastest to touch the top rung is the goal.
NBC New York showed videos of drill team racing to Dr. Harry Carter, a consultant for volunteer fire companies, who used to be the chief of training for the Newark Fire Department in New Jersey. Carter said the high-speed contests bear little resemblance to actual firefighting scenarios.
“I would think that your chances of being hurt hanging off the back of a drag racer are a lot greater than on a regular fire truck,” Carter said.
NBC New York asked the Elmont fire commissioners to itemize how much the fire district spends on drill team racing. The commissioners insisted there is no set budget for the tradition, but in an email, a spokesperson for the fire district said fuel and maintenance costs eat up between 2 and 4 percent of the district’s total vehicle maintenance budget of $255,000.
The vehicles themselves, which can cost more than $10,000 each, were also paid for by fire taxes.
Of the district’s 33 vehicle fleet, three are used exclusively for drill team racing.
“These are very poor times economically for fire departments across the nation and if this, in fact, is more of a hobby than a firefighting exercise, well, they should be looking for other ways to raise the money than taking it from the taxpayers,” Carter said.
NBC New York has also learned the Elmont Fire District has agreed to pay workers compensation for the firefighter who was injured during drill team practice in August.
“Workers compensation is paying for it at this time," said Elmont Fire Commissioner Andrew Bohnet. "If the state comes around and says, 'You can’t do this anymore,' then we’ll stop it."
In 2012, taxpayers in the Elmont Fire District are set to pay workers compensation premiums that are 9 percent higher than in 2011. The fire commissioners insist the higher costs have nothing to do with drill team racing.
Guidelines published by the New York State Workers Compensation Board are unclear as to whether drill team racing injuries should be considered “in the line of duty” injuries. The rules say injuries suffered while participating in “authorized drills,” “parades” and “funerals” qualify for public benefits.
At the same time, the rules disqualify injuries suffered during competitive events “which involve physical exertion on the part of the competitors.”
Kenneth Conn, a vice president for the New York State Volunteer Fireman’s Parade and Drill Team Captain’s Association, told NBC New York public expenditures for drill team racing are justified because the events help recruit and retain volunteers.
“A lot of guys on drill teams are ex-chiefs," Conn said. "This is part of what keeps them in the fire department. We don’t spend the taxpayer’s money recklessly."