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Long Beach, Garden City reduce number of paid firefighters

Garden City firefighters and others attend a village

Garden City firefighters and others attend a village board meeting June 2, 2016 where board members dropped plans to lay off two paid firefighters. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Long Island’s only two paid fire departments are trimming budgets by scaling back staff firefighters in favor of paramedics and volunteers.

For many decades, Long Beach and Garden City have boasted departments staffed by professional firefighters. But elected officials have been gradually reducing the ranks of paid firefighters, eyeing the departments as a key source of savings. Garden City has trimmed ranks needed to keep budgets under the state-mandated tax cap while Long Beach has replaced some firefighters with paramedics as a less-costly alternative to responding to medical calls.

Layoffs were averted in Garden City last week only because the needed savings were made up in part through the retirement of two senior firefighters. The village has lost nearly 20 paid firefighters through attrition and layoffs since 2008, union officials said.

Long Beach faced firefighter staffing cuts last year, when a federal grant ran out and the city decided to not pick up the cost of some salaries.

Firefighters and union representatives have said the cuts are hurting emergency response by providing fewer trained firefighters at a scene to run trucks, contain fires and treat patients. Firefighters also argue that reduced staffing will cause overtime costs to rise, negating any savings.

Long Beach and Garden City, in addition to villages in Port Chester, in Westchester County, and upstate Watertown, have hired the Garden City law firm of Bond, Schoeneck and King for firefighter contract negotiations. One of the firm’s lead negotiators, Terry O’Neil, said he has never recommended job cuts but said communities are steering away from paid firefighters that, with overtime, can mean annual salaries exceeding $150,000.

“They make generally close to cops in one of the most expensive pension systems. Any 24/7 service is expensive when you have to man it day or night,” O’Neil said. “It’s the only job where you have people willing to do it for free and working side by side with paid firefighters.”

Garden City officials proposed laying off two paid firefighters in the 2016-17 budget year, but the village board announced Thursday they had achieved the $320,000 in needed savings through two voluntary retirements. That leaves the department with 16 paid firefighters with three to five on duty at any given time, officials said. The department is supported by 75 active volunteer firefighters.

Garden City fire union president T.J. Michon said the department is down from its peak of 35 paid firefighters in 2008, and noted layoffs eliminated six positions in 2013. He said the department’s budget has been cut in half, to $3 million, since 2008.

“It doesn’t equate to an adequate level of staffing, and the response is not what the village residents expect and deserve,” he said.

Village trustees said they will continue to deliver budgets under the tax cap with a “high level of fire protection on a cost-effective basis.

In Long Beach, paid firefighters have criticized a city-commissioned study last year that recommended replacing firefighters with eight newly hired paramedics for the majority of medical-related calls. The study from Washington, D.C.-based International City/County Management Association reported that the city should reorganize to focus on its majority of medical emergency calls. The study projected the changes would save the city up to $2 million a year.

Four other positions lost through attrition have been left vacant this year, reducing staffing to 19 paid firefighters and officers. The city had a roster of about 30 paid firefighters hired with the grant after superstorm Sandy.

Long Beach fire union president Bill Piazza said the city is reducing staff to limit the duties of paid firefighters and cross-trained EMTs and firefighter paramedics. He said the department’s ability to respond to calls in high-density neighborhoods and high-rises off the boardwalk has been compromised by fewer firefighters responding.

“Paramedics are only effective on 75 percent of the calls,” Piazza said. “The volunteers do a good job, but . . . they have their own jobs and their own families. They can’t always get to the firehouse and be there in five minutes.”

The city is contracting for an additional ambulance from South Nassau Communities Hospital and the city’s paramedics, who have joined the fire union, work 12-hour ambulance shifts to respond to calls.

Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman said the restructuring has improved response times by 28 percent, and the City Council decided not to make additional fire department cuts this year despite a budget with a 6 percent tax increase.

“We are closely watching the trends throughout the region,” Schnirman said.

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