Residents Weigh in on Fire Department Tensions

Residents recently shared their own thoughts about the Garden City Fire Department and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) report which suggests several changes be made to it.

Tensions between the department's career force and volunteers reached a boiling point when the ICMA report went public in August.

Fourteen recommendations are included in the report; two of which are causing the most controversy: "change dispatch to Firecom to improve dispatch/turnout time and allow continued achievement of response time performance" and "eliminate staffing at satellite stations during night hours and review the necessity for daytime staffing at the satellite stations following the recommended change in dispatching."

A special board meeting July 30 at the library added fuel to the fire.

Trustees unanimously accepted the ICMA report at that meeting, on motion by trustee Dennis Donnelly. Also carried unanimously was another motion made by Donnelly to direct víllage administrator Robert Schoelle to refer the report to the chiefs of the Garden City Fire Department to implement Recommendation 8 regarding dispatching through Firecorn and to give input to the board of trustees on implementing Recommendation 6 regarding staffing of the fire department. (Deputy mayor and fire commissioner John Watras was not at this meeting.)

On Aug. 6, all fire department dispatching duties were turned over to Nassau County Firecom, a "quicker, simpler, easier way to operate" according to Chief Charles Cavarra, who added, "We wanted to change dispatching years ago."

He reiterated that no decisions have been made regarding staffing changes. "I have no authority to hire or fire anybody," he said at the Sept. 25 Western Property Owners' Association meeting. "I don't necessarily know that's the direction we should go or want to go."

A 49-year Garden City resident implored the board of trustees at its Sept. 20 meeting to preserve the village's professional fire department unchanged. "It has been a great comfort to me and one of the reasons I bought in Garden City," she said.

Another resident suggested letting the volunteers man the satellite stations 24 hours a day instead of closing them and run the career firefighters out of Headquarters (Stewart Avenue firehouse) only.

Chief Cavarra assured residents there is "no plan in place to reduce staffing," adding that if the village board were to drop down to a four-man staffing "we might try a different response matrix, keeping satellite stations open, maintaining our response time, and always have someone in the area heading to the scene of the alarm."

At the direction of the board of trustees, in February 2010 the department began operating under what has been dubbed "Code 4" to cut back on overtime. The six professional firefighters that usually manned the village’s three firehouses were cut down to five in order to save money. This left the department staffed with two firefighters at Station No. 2, two at Station No. 3 and one at Headquarters, as well as a lieutenant. The current staffing level per shift is six firefighters and one lieutenant. If a firefighter calls in sick or takes vacation, that member is not replaced with overtime. Rather, the department goes to Code 4, which brings with it a staffing level of five firefighters and one lieutenant.

Andrew Polinsky of Kensington Road, a retired New York City firefighter, said department tensions have caused a "real rift" between the paid force and volunteers. "That needs to be fixed," he told trustees Sept. 20. "I'm not implying that I know how to do it but I know that it should be."

He told a story on "behalf of the merits of a paid firefighter" about an incident at his home last Tuesday when his carbon monoxide detector went off at 3:55 a.m. "They responded in two minutes," Polinsky said. "I didn't clock it but it was grease lightning fast."

As one firefighter headed upstairs Polinsky said he saw another heading down to the basement. "I asked him 'what are you doing down here?' He looked at me and goes 'Don't you remember me? I was here about seven or eight years ago when you had an odor of gas. I knew where your basement was. I knew where your boiler was.' That type of familiarity you can't put a price on."

Polinsky said the village should "hire more guys" if overtime costs are an issue. "A firehouse is a place of joy," he said. "But when there's stress in the family because there's no dad setting the rules here you guys gotta work that out somehow to everyone's mutual liking and mutual respect. I think it's a bad move to let all the paid guys drift away ... this isn't the place for the village to start pulling the belt as tight as it can. These guys are our life insurance."

An observation in the ICMA report states that the department "operates as two separate entities." Chief Cavarra said he wants to unify the department. "It's much better for everybody," he said. "We're trying to operate as one system."

Chief Cavarra added, "That's where we're headed - to try to continue to manage the combination fire department as is and stay on that course."

Cavarra said the bottom line is this: "Ultimately, whether anybody likes it or not, emergency services are governed by the same thing that governs the rest of our lives and that's the almighty dollar ... Nobody said 'put together the best possible fire department' but 'put the best possible fire department together we can afford.' That's the truth.

"The fire department is changing," he continued. "Nobody likes change. Change comes with growing pains."

Resident Judy Courtney commended the board, and Chief Cavarra in particular, for their "courage" in "putting up with a lot."

"There's been a lot of angst around this and the courage that you all had and quite frankly that you have had in kind of stepping up and putting up with a lot, you are to be commended," she said at the Sept. 20 board meeting. "i just want you to know that with all this stuff going on and things being said that we as residents really appreciate the time that you've taken and truthfully taken some hard stands that might not be popular with everybody. But at least you're making an effort to make the department better and I think it's important that you recognize we really appreciate that."

Mayor Don Brudie added, "We have tremendous respect for both the paid firemen and the volunteer firemen. We respect both of them greatly. They're a great bunch of people."


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