By CHRIS EBERHART
A crucial fire engine with specialized emergency equipment stationed in the North End of Eastchester has been pulled out of service six times since last Thanksgiving, and as recently as June 25, because of understaffing and arguments over sick time versus injury time and overtime pay.
The president of the career firefighters’ union, Shawn Stewart, said Chief Michael Grogan and the Board of Fire Commissioners, which is a group of five Eastchester residents that creates the district’s fire budget, will continue to pull Tower Ladder 17 out of service until the end of the year.
Tower Ladder 17 covers half the fire district and is the first responder in the crowded Garth Road community and Eastchester High School area. It is also the only fire truck in the Eastchester fire district with equipment for the Rapid Intervention Team, RIT, which is search-and-rescue gear used to save firefighters that are missing or trapped in a building.
In addition to the RIT equipment, the fire engine also holds jacks for building collapses; rescue air bags, which slide under a car and push it up so the firefighter can free a victim trapped in a rolled-over vehicle or someone who is stuck under a vehicle; and cribbing, which are typically planks of wood that stabilize buildings and cars after an accident.
“By pulling this ladder truck out [of service], you’re rolling the dice and hoping nothing happens,” Stewart said.
Fire Commissioner Jerry Napolitano said, even with the engine out of service, response times haven’t suffered and fire standards, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—OSHA—standard of “two in/two out,” which states two firefighters inside a building must maintain communication between each other and radio communication with two firefighters outside the building, have been maintained.
But Thomas Cusack, vice president of the firefighters’ union, said, without Tower Ladder 17, the fire district is not in compliance with OSHA’s regulation, which is an internationally recognized firefighting safety standard that’s applicable in court in cases of a lawsuit.
He said, when Tower Ladder 17 is pulled out of service, there’s only one engine with two or three firefighters responding to the scene, so they can’t go into a burning structure until one or two more firefighters arrive.
“When you had [Tower Ladder 17] in service, you had four guys on the scene, and they can immediately go inside and make a rescue. Now you’re going to have two guys standing outside of whoever’s house and it is burning down because they can’t go in yet,” Cusack said. “And, really, your first due at fires are supposed to go in. They’re going in and doing search-and-rescues, looking for where the fire is and how big it is, and what you’re going to need to put it out. Then you’re relaying that information, but you don’t have any of that because no one is going in.”
Cusack said the next closest truck would be coming from Tuckahoe, which he said is about four to five minutes away, “and during a fire, a four-to-five-minute wait is very dangerous.”
Napolitano said the RIT equipment is on other trucks in the district. But Stewart and Cusack said the RIT equipment is only on Tower Ladder 17 and won’t be available, if needed, until a neighboring municipality that’s been called for help arrives.
“So now you’re taxing another [fire] department,” Stewart said. “And if you’re depending on the Greenville Fire District or the Village of Scarsdale—they only have one ladder truck each—and what if they’re busy? Now what? The chief and the board of commissioners are putting the firefighters at risk because we’re working with less and we’re down a ladder truck with specialized equipment, and you’re putting the public at risk.”
“At no particular time was the public put in danger, and at no particular time were the
firefighters put in danger,” he said.
“The reason the truck was pulled out of service is because firefighters called out sick, so we didn’t have enough resources to fill it,” Napolitano said. “At any point in time, we can have five percent of our resources out sick.”
Instead of using overtime to fill in for absent firefighters, Chief Grogan has opted to remove Tower Ladder 17 from service and remain short staffed after the Board of Fire Commissioners told the chief to manage the overtime budget.
In the 2014 budget, the fire district reserved $635,000 for overtime. Total overtime expenditures to date were not provided by the Eastchester Fire District as of press time.
Grogan did not return calls for comment, but in a letter obtained by the Review sent by Grogan to the fire captains, the chief said, “Until further notice, the filling of overtime to cover sick leave or other non-scheduled absences shall require expressed authorization through the Chief of Department, and on a case-by-case basis.”
Sick time in the Eastchester Fire District means anytime a firefighter is not at work.
Within the department, there is no differentiation between sick time and when a firefighter misses time because of an injury sustained on the job, which is unlike many local fire departments including New Rochelle, Harrison and Rye.
Stewart said there are two firefighters that sustained injuries on the job and 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.
Even before the injuries, Stewart said the fire department was already understaffed.
At full staff, there would be 75 firefighters including the chief, assistant chief, lieutenants and captains. Currently, there are 68 firefighters, and with an unexpected retirement, injuries on the job and a long-term illness, the number drops to 64.
Stewart said there needs to be 71 to have a sufficient staff and create overtime. He said it’s “dangerous” when the department falls under 70 active members.
Stewart said last October, he told the Board of Fire Commissioners to hire six new firefighters. The board hired only four fire academy graduates around Christmas 2013 to supplement the staff. The graduates will join the department at the end of June for training and stabilize the manpower until the first of two more retirements in July and November, Stewart said. Then the fire district will be short staffed again and in the same predicament it is now.
Napolitano said it’s too soon to decide how or if those two positions will be replaced.