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Smoking ban costs Valley fire companies

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Monday, Feb. 9, 2009

Volunteer fire departments are hurting from the state smoking ban, which has driven players away from the bingo games that raise cash for training firefighters and paying bills, representatives of seven Westmoreland and Armstrong county departments said Sunday.

They gathered at Apollo Hose Company No. 2 to talk about getting an exception to a state law prohibiting smoking in most workplaces and public spaces.

Beyond bingo, they want all volunteer fire department fund-raising activities to be excluded from the smoking ban, which took effect Sept. 11.

"If it doesn't get changed quickly, you're going to see a lot of fire departments closing down," said Steve Callipare, treasurer and bingo chairman of Oklahoma Volunteer Fire Department.

Under the Clean Indoor Air Act, fire departments are considered private clubs that can allow smoking for members-only events, but bingo games are considered public gatherings where smoking is forbidden.

State Rep. Joseph Petrarca, D-Vandergrift, was the only lawmaker to attend the meeting, which drew about 20 firefighters. Petrarca, who voted against the ban, said the departments should be exempted.

Petrarca said the ban was focused on getting smoking out of restaurants and bars and that the effect on fire departments, churches and fraternal organizations was not considered.

"It will be a very difficult piece of legislation to amend," he said. "You need that grass-roots effort to get things moving in the Legislature."

A week before the ban, about 80 people attended the Apollo department's Wednesday bingo game, company Vice President Bill Walker said. Last week, the game had 13 players, and seven the week before. Bingo brings in about 75 percent of the department's income, he said.

Walker said he expected his company's bingo attendance would be down for a month after the ban, but thought players would come back.

"We were wrong," he said, adding that players have said they'll give up bingo before cigarettes.

"This no-smoking ban is really killing us," he said. "The law needs to be changed."

Washington Township fire Chief Dan Black, chairman of his company's bingo, said not only is bingo revenue down 15 percent to 20 percent, but the ban has pitted smokers and nonsmokers against each other. Smokers want breaks built into the games; nonsmokers don't.

"It's something that didn't matter two years ago. They sat side by side. It wasn't an issue," he said.

Black said he can afford to lose the nonsmokers.

Casinos are exempt from the ban, which is a sore point with firefighters. They foresee players leaving their communities for casinos literally by the busload.

"If the casinos can do it, we should be able to do it. We serve more of a public interest than the casinos. We're trying to save lives," Walker said.

If the state will not allow smoking at fire department fundraisers, then it should subsidize the departments, Walker said.

"We're not here to make money for us. We're here to provide a service the state can not provide for us," he said. "We're here because when the fire whistle blows, we want to do something."

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