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Garden City Fire Department changes spark debate

The Headquarters of the Garden City Fire Department

The Headquarters of the Garden City Fire Department located at 351 Stewart Avenue in Garden City. (Aug. 27, 2012) Credit: Steven Pfost

Changes in operations at the Garden City Fire Department -- some proposed, some already in place -- have sparked an ongoing debate between paid firefighters and village officials over potential staff elimination and the impact of the changes on response times.

The dispute began late last month after the release of an 85-page analysis of the department's performance by the International City/County Management Association, hired in November by the village board to perform the analysis. The two most controversial of 14 recommendations were calls to allow the Nassau County Fire Communications Center (Firecom) to handle all dispatch calls and to eliminate nighttime staff at two of three fire stations.

"The fire chief and the assistant chiefs have been asked to review the report and then make their recommendations," village administrator Robert L. Schoelle Jr. said.

The 92-year-old department has both paid and volunteer members and is overseen by the village. Its three stations are maintained on a 24-hour basis and serve about 22,400 residents.

Fire department officials turned over dispatch duties to Firecom on Aug. 6, after being directed by the village board. The department's average response time since then has been two to three minutes, compared with seven minutes when calls were dispatched by its own paid firefighters, village officials said.

Response times are "considerably less," village attorney Gerard Fishberg said.

Paid firefighters dispute both sets of numbers and argue the switch has its drawbacks.

"We can respond quicker" if Firecom is not involved, said Lt. Peter Clancy, union president of Local 1588, which represents Garden City's professional firefighters. "Firecom does not have the knowledge of our local area."

The village board is considering whether to eliminate nighttime staff at the Edgemere Road and Clinton Road stations and place four firefighters at headquarters on Stewart Avenue. Current required staffing levels are two paid firefighters and a lieutenant at headquarters, and two paid firefighters at each satellite station.

Paid firefighters argue that staffing reductions and station closings could jeopardize the safety of the public and firefighters. The moves are just a way for village officials to save money by cutting overtime, firefighter Jerry Cadigan said.

"You can't do the same amount of work with less people," said Cadigan, 56, adding that six retired paid firefighters have not been replaced since 2009.

Village officials said they always look for ways to improve efficiency under budgetary constraints. They pointed out the report found firefighters can travel more quickly from headquarters during evenings compared with daytime because of less traffic.

"Nobody would put implementations in place that would put our residents in jeopardy," Fishberg said.

"Nothing is written in cement," said Mayor Donald T. Brudie. "We want to make sure that it works out for the best interest of the village."

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