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Calling the Numbers Cold Turkey

Nonsmoking bingo night gets six-month trial run at Greater Springfield Fire Station.

"For those of us who train as firefighters, you take a whole lot of precautions to not expose yourself to smoke," said volunteer firefighter Jim McKenna. Yet, on Sunday and Tuesday evenings, the men and women of the Greater Springfield Volunteer Fire Department were doing just that. The twice-weekly bingo games that are the station's primary source of funding were also a major source of second-hand smoke for the volunteers who operated them until late last September.

When he used to come home after working bingo night, said McKenna, "my wife would tell me to take my clothes off in the garage because they smelled so bad."

In September, he said, one of the volunteers gathered data on the dangers of second-hand smoke, anticipating a conflict over the idea of making bingo night a nonsmoking event. "He came loaded for bear," said McKenna. "But there wasn't a lot of need for the information because once it was brought up at the meeting, everybody was kind of on board."

The station is experimenting with the idea, giving the nonsmoking policy a six-month trial run. "There have been a lot of complaints and a drop-off in attendance," said McKenna. The question now, he said, is, "How much longer can we go before we have to bite the bullet and go back to smoking one night a week?"

"HALF THE BACK of the hall is empty, and that's where the smokers used to sit," said Tracy Moreland at Tuesday night's bingo session.

McKenna noted that these former regulars were likely playing bingo at one of the stations where smoking is still allowed. A few such stations are still left, he said.

Moreland noted that some new players have shown up because of the nonsmoking policy. "But we're way down, as far as earnings are concerned," she said. As a bingo manager, Moreland works the bingo games twice a week. "I would love it to be nonsmoking," she said, but she added that the department needs the revenue that bingo attendance generates.

Fire Department President John Ryan said the Greater Springfield station operates on about an annual budget of about $500,000. While the station is staffed mainly by full-time Fairfax County firefighters, it is owned by the volunteers, as are its vehicles and equipment and the land on which it sits. The additional equipment and manpower allow fire and rescue personnel to cover more territory at once, said Ryan, particularly during snowstorms or disasters, when county firefighters would have their hands full.

McKenna pointed out that all this comes at no cost to taxpayers.

Upcoming expenses include a $500,000 pump arriving in July and a new chassis for one of the ambulances, which will run about $125,000.

About 80 percent of the station's budget, said Ryan, comes from bingo, while the other 20 percent comes from direct contributions. However, bingo revenues have dropped off by about half since smoking was prohibited. Although only eight to 12 players per night have been lost to the smoking ban, bingo is a volume game, Ryan explains. For the station to just break even, about 90 people need to play.

By about 8 p.m. Tuesday evening, attendance was at 83.

PLAYERS, HOWEVER, show up not just to support the station but also to win big money. Regular games pay out at $100, Winner-Take-All and jackpots pay up to $1,000, and Lucky 7 winners take home up to $5,000. All of the games run every Sunday and Tuesday, and players can participate in all of a night's games for $20, said Ryan.

Many smokers have decided that the possibility of such winnings is worth going cold-turkey for a few hours.

"We still have a fair number of smokers who come," said McKenna. "They just have to smoke outside," which, he acknowledged, "is tough in January."

The smokers standing outdoors between rounds seemed to be taking the change in stride.

"I don't mind. It's helping me quit," said Patricia Damron. "They could give us a smoke house. We need a warm place."

"It's good business for the snack bar," said Barbara Roe, noting that patrons who cannot smoke tend to eat more.

Jen Sommers said she had been playing bingo at the fire station since her mother started bringing her to games when she was 15. "The whole place used to be smoking," she said. "You had to cut through the smoke." Since the ban took effect, she noted, it has become easier to find a seat in the Bingo Hall.

"All of these people are our supporters," said McKenna. "We consider them our neighbors and our friends, and we don't want to say, 'If you smoke, don't come.' We want everyone to come."