A recent study spearheaded by the City of Peekskill that recommends the hiring of a full-time fire chief has come under fire and created battle lines among the ranks.
Retired fire chief Ed Rush, who has 44 years of experience in career and volunteer fire and EMS services, was retained by the city to examine the current staffing of paid and volunteer firefighters in Peekskill, as well as the supervision and administration of the department.
According to City Manager Andrew Stewart, Peekskill has 24 paid firefighters, who provide the majority of the fire response service in the city, and about 54 volunteers, including volunteer chiefs.
The objectives of the study, according to Stewart, were to address declining volunteer participation and absence of an effective recruitment and retention strategy; lack of daily supervision of the unionized firefighters due to volunteer chiefs having full-time jobs; and a new state law that makes current chiefs ineligible to serve as incident commanders, starting in 2022, without oversight by a state certified chief.
“City management is looking for effective solutions to declining volunteerism, precisely to prevent the need to hire additional staff, and to hold paid staff accountable,” Stewart stated in a report to the community. “The hiring of a full-time chief comes at the cost of demoting elected volunteer chiefs to assistant chief titles with the right to continued leadership as incident commanders and without the burden of management duties they are currently unable to perform on a volunteer basis. For some, who may aspire to this role as traditionally defined, this may be a bitter pill to swallow, and this is well-understood. However, the recommendation’s intent is to bring substantial new support to volunteerism in the fire department, not eliminate it.”
The Peekskill Volunteer Firefighters Association (P.V.F.A.) took issue with several of Stewart’s assertions, maintaining the group of volunteers is increasing, with five new recruits recently approved by city officials.
The P.V.F.A. also claimed the city has negotiated away the rights of the volunteer chiefs to manage the department.
“The city currently permits paid staff to make their own schedules without approval or oversight,” the P.V.F.A. stated. “The actual oversight falls directly on the city manager in his role as Public Safety Commissioner as stated in the City Code. When the volunteer chiefs offered corrective actions, the city manager ignored all suggestions and chose not to act. The city hired paid lieutenants to supervise the day-to-day operations, including, but not limited to, scheduling which has led to tens of thousands of dollars in overtime. The volunteer chiefs brought this to the attention of the city manager and was consequently ignored, as usual.”
In his report, Rush concluded “having one chief oversee the entire operation will allow the department to operate much more in sync, especially if the paid chief’s performance is measures in part by improvements in volunteer participation and satisfaction.”
The P.V.F.A., which suggested the city place the possible hiring of a paid fire chief up for a public referendum, has filed a lawsuit against the city alleging Peekskill is consistently violating established protocols and standard operating procedures, including the failure to follow Civil Service Law, as well as “blatantly engaging in age discrimination practices.”
“We have a diverse and inclusive volunteer force, far more then City Hall and the paid firefighter staff,” the P.V.F.A. stated. “The city has disincentivized recruitment and retention of volunteers during the past years, to include being locked out of the fire house, prohibited new recruits from riding in the apparatus, removing certain amenities including the refrigerator and use of the kitchen/pantry areas. In addition, a majority of the paid staff continue to denigrate, demoralize, and verbally abuse the volunteers in the Fire House and on the Fireground/Accident Scenes.”
Stewart stated the city has filed a motion in state Supreme Court in White Plains to dismiss the lawsuit.
“The agreements were not intended to, and do not, work in any way to the detriment of the volunteer firefighters whose services are highly valued by the city they serve,” Stewart stated. “To the contrary, the agreements were designed to protect the firefighters from bias and unqualified supervision.”