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Fire department still ‘staffed for failure’

Despite petitions from the Rye Professional Firefighters Association to address the lack of a sufficient number of trained fire personnel, it is currently unclear whether the city Fire Department will receive additional funding from the City Council for 2017.

According to John Castelhano, the president of the local firefighters’ union, despite the Fire Department’s historical label of being “staffed for failure,” it’s likely that the department will continue being “dangerously understaffed” in the next calendar year, as the city’s 2017 tentative budget does not earmark any additional funds for hiring new employees. The final city budget is expected to be adopted on Wednesday, Dec. 21.

Without additional funding in the city’s tentative 2017 budget, it’s unlikely the Rye Fire Department will be able to add career firefighters to the paid roster. File photo
Without additional funding in the city’s tentative 2017 budget, it’s unlikely the Rye Fire Department will be able to add career firefighters to the paid roster. File photo

Additionally, City Manager Marcus Serrano said there is no plan to take action on the issue until forthcoming public safety commissioner is included in the discussion. “I will be reviewing the level of staffing with the new public safety commissioner in the near future,” he said.

On Election Day, in a citywide referendum residents voted in favor of creating a public safety commissioner position and a Department of Public Safety for the purpose of consolidating oversight of the police and fire departments.  It is expected that Police Commissioner Michael Corcoran, who was hired earlier this year, will be tapped as the new public safety commissioner, although Serrano said the position is not likely to be named officially until next year.

“Once that happens, we’re going to make sure the department gets what it needs,” said Councilwoman Danielle Tagger-Epstein, a Democrat. “We will continue to support the firefighters.”

In May, the city Fire Advisory Committee recommended the addition of four paid positions to the department’s roster. However, since then, talks of adding staffing have dwindled.

Castelhano told the Review that adding professional firefighters to the department would address a need that it has struggled with over the past two years. He added, with just 17 paid firefighters  employed by the city and as little as 30 active volunteers, 12 of whom are trained to fight indoor fires, the department is currently wrestling to keep up with the industry standard of 15 trained firefighters responding to an emergency.

According to Castelhano, the Fire Department is seeking to fill just three paid professional positions to meet those standards and account for a federal law it often violates, which is dubbed the “two-in, two-out” rule. The regulation mandates that if two professional firefighters enter a burning building, there must be two others stationed outside observing in case a rescue is necessary.

Further, he said an Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, representative visited the department during the summer to file a random report of its operations and compliance to federal requirements. He added that the department is expecting to receive a failing report for breaking the two-in, two-out rule. “My understanding is that, instead of fining the department, they would rather have the department in compliance by solving the problem,” he said.

Castelhano also contributed the low staffing to a decrease in volunteer service that he said has gone down throughout his tenure as a professional firefighter.

When Castelhano joined the department 24 years ago, there were as many as 120 active volunteers, many who were able to battle indoor fires. “In the past, we drew a lot of the volunteer service from the middle class; but because it’s been harder financially on them, the numbers have decreased,” he said.

According to the current terms and conditions of employment between the city of Rye and the Professional Firefighters Association, which covers the period of Jan.1, 2010 through Dec. 31, 2015, the starting salary of a professional firefighter is $49,968. After seven years, a firefighter earns $96,497 a year.

As of press time, the Fire Department does not have a new contract and operates under the previous deal that expired last year.

In September, the department hired two new paid firefighters after two firefighters retired in July. The Fire Department hired Cea Fong, its first female firefighter, and Ryan Iarocci, who both worked for the village of Port Chester Fire Department.

Councilwoman Kirstin Bucci, a Republican and member of the Fire Advisory Committee, and Mayor Joe Sack, a Republican, could not be reached for comment, as of press time.

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