By CHRIS EBERHART
A three-alarm fire tore through two Yonkers homes on Saratoga Avenue around 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 10. The Yonkers Fire Department exhausted all its resources and needed reinforcements from neighboring municipalities. A call for mutual aid was sent out.
Eastchester was among the departments called, but its fire department couldn’t respond.
The truck that would’ve responded—Tower Ladder 17—was pulled out of service earlier that day because the department was again short-staffed after Eastchester’s Fire Chief, Michael Grogan, ordered his captains in June to stop using overtime to cover “sick leave or other non-scheduled absences.”
Grogan was told to manage the department’s overtime budget by the Eastchester Board of Fire Commissioners, a group of five elected officials that creates the budget for the Eastchester fire district. The board said the amount of sick leave is too high and the allotted overtime costs in the budget—$635,000—is running low.
So Eastchester couldn’t provide the requested assistance to a Yonkers blaze that ultimately left 35 people homeless and took hours for about 70 firefighters to extinguish, according to Yonkers Deputy Fire Chief John Flynn.
Refusing mutual aid because of the absence of Tower Ladder 17 has become an ongoing trend for the town’s fire department since Grogan issued the June 13 order banning overtime to cover sick leave.
Since June 13, Tower Ladder 17, which is stationed in the North End fire house on Wilmot Road and is the first responding engine to emergencies in the crowded Garth Road community, Lawrence Hospital and all the schools in Eastchester, Bronxville and Tuckahoe, has been pulled out of service 39 times in the past 59 days, according to Eastchester firefighters union president Shawn Stewart.
During the same time frame, the department refused to send mutual aid on at least eight occasions—once to New Rochelle, twice to Yonkers and five times to Mount Vernon, according to Stewart.
“[By refusing mutual aid], you’re putting stress on the entire mutual aid system,” Stewart said. “Other departments don’t know from day-to-day if our truck is available. And they won’t know until they call for help…We don’t even know from day-to-day if [Tower Ladder 17] is available. It’s become a guessing game.”
Stewart said, because Eastchester denied mutual aid so many times in a short period, other fire departments are knocking Eastchester further down the mutual aid list.
“Because of that truck, we used to be the number one or number two [department called in a mutual aid situation]. Now we’re four, five or six,” Stewart said. “We’re getting to a point where no one can count on us.”
In a recent example, Scarsdale needed a FAST team—Fire Assist and Search Team—during a structure fire on
Cooper Road on Aug. 5 and called the Hartsdale Fire Department for mutual aid instead of Eastchester.
“We won’t know for sure if Eastchester was overlooked for mutual aid, but in my experience, Eastchester would’ve been the department called in that situation,” Stewart said.
Without the Tower Ladder 17 truck in service, other fire departments seem less inclined to contact Eastchester, according to Stewart.
The reason Tower Ladder 17 has been pulled out of service routinely is because of staffing issues, which largely lie in the department’s definition
According to the Eastchester Fire Department, “sick” includes anytime a firefighter is not at work, meaning there is no differentiation between sick time and when a firefighter misses time because of an injury sustained on the job. This policy is unlike many local fire departments including New Rochelle, Harrison and Rye.
Stewart said currently there are two firefighters who sustained injuries on the job and one with a long-term illness, which, coupled with the fire district’s definition of “sick,” is why the sick absences appear higher than they really are.
Staffing concerns run deeper with two unexpected retirements; one in July and another to come in November.
At full staff, there would be 75 firefighters including the chief, assistant chief, lieutenants and captains, but the department intentionally runs slightly below the 75 number to allow for overtime
Stewart said the staffing numbers have been cut too low.
Including four recent hires from the fire academy and July’s retirement, the current staffing is down to 67. November’s retirement will drop that number down to 66.
“Anything under 70 [active members] is dangerous,” Stewart said.
Stewart said not having Tower Ladder 17 in service is not only putting the public at risk, but also the firefighters because that is the only truck in the district that has specialized emergency equipment and search-and-rescue gear used to save firefighters that are missing or trapped in a building.
The firefighters’ union is taking the issue to court.
Stewart said the union filed an improper practice charge against the department on July 24, which will force the department to have discussions with union leaders about the safety impacts of pulling Tower Ladder 17 out of
service, after previous discussion requests were ignored by Grogan, according to Stewart.
The union has also taken the battle into the north Eastchester neighborhood by sending out public notice fliers to approximately 5,000 North Eastchester residents urging them to attend the next fire commissioners meeting.
The Aug. 14 fire commissioners meeting has been postponed. A new date has not been set.
Grogan was on vacation as of press time, and the Assistant Chief Ralph Stupple declined to comment.
Board of Fire Commissioner chairman Dennis Winter did not return calls for comment as of press time.