By Robin Jovanovich
Talking to a group of longtime Rye volunteer firemen, it is hard not to view them as professionals. For decades they’ve governed themselves, electing chiefs and assistant chiefs, and responding to and putting out their share of fires. They weren’t paid, but they always showed up.
Change, however, comes faster than you think, and not just in technology.
When Michael Corcoran was hired as Rye’s Police Commissioner last year, the Rye Fire Department was struggling to find qualified volunteers who were ready to step up as chiefs, so they waived the five-year residency requirement.
Meanwhile, the City Council voted to change the City Charter and create a Commissioner of Public Safety position, to which both the Police and Fire Departments would report.
According to David Larr, who was elected chief by his peers, and Wayne Elmore and Vinnie Ballantoni, who’ve each served for close to 50 years, the volunteers asked to meet with the City liaisons, Councilmembers Kirsten Bucci and Richard Mecca. “We were concerned because the City was taking money out of planned traffic improvements to hire someone from the outside,” said Elmore. “We also wanted to make sure there would be enough money to buy needed equipment,” said Ballantoni.
It was Councilman Mecca’s suggestion to hire a Public Safety Commissioner, as they had in White Plains. “It was sold to us that the Commissioner was just an administrative position and that the leadership would remain under the chiefs,” explained Larr.
“In fact, I have an email from Commissioner Corcoran saying how much he looks forward to working with me.”
But after the Public Employee Safety & Health Bureau (PESH) came in to do an inspection of the Rye Fire Department last year, and cited them for 19 violations, 14 of them workplace violations — cooking products on the same shelf as cleaning products, expired tags, training records they found wanting — the then chief, Mike Billington, stepped down. “They discounted his experience,” said Larr with disappointment.
Larr, who was then elected chief, asked PESH if they had reviewed his files. In April of this year they emailed him that he was qualified to be chief, and Corcoran also emailed him saying he looked forward to working with him. But, according to Larr, Corcoran then delayed accepting the election results.
When we spoke to Commissioner Corcoran this week, he said that the Fire Department lacked proper oversight and supervision. “You can’t have one lieutenant in charge of 17 firefighters. It’s absurd.” He added, “Volunteers will always have a role to play. There is a tradition here and I respect it, but we need to stabilize the organizational structure and move the department forward in a professional way.”
To that end, the City has proposed adding three lieutenants and promoting, from within, a deputy chief. The estimated annual cost is $300,000, based on an average salary of over $90,000, without benefits and pensions. With overtime, a firefighter can make $130,000 a year.
Larr thinks that’s a cost that’s hard to justify, especially since the City has under $200,000 in annual fire loss. He makes a larger point: We can’t afford to replace the equipment we need ($900,000 for a new fire engine) — we received zero for capital improvement this year — but we can hire more staff?”
Corcoran said he’s looking to replace an engine in the 2018 capital budget. As far as the additional hires, he said the City still has to approve the salary scale. “We need the blessing of the City Council and Civil Service.”