Tensions between the City of Peekskill and its volunteer firefighters came to a head last month when a report by retired fire chief Ed Rush, commissioned by the City, recommended the hiring of a full-time, paid chief for the Peekskill Fire Department.
Rush, a former chief with the Hartsdale Fire District, has a combined 44 years of experience in both paid (or “career”) and volunteer fire and EMS service, as well as over 20 years of local government service and over 25 years of finance and budgeting experience in the private sector.
One of the largest issues affecting the department, says the report, is its dwindling number of volunteers. According to City Manager Andrew (“Andy”) Stewart, that is mostly due to “demographic change, greatly increased training requirements, and call volumes that are burdensome to many potential volunteers.”
The City currently has 24 paid firefighters, who Stewart says “provide the vast majority of fire response service,”and approximately 27 active volunteers.
Another issue cited in the report is a lack of supervision. Volunteer chiefs have full-time jobs – as do most volunteer firefighters – which cuts down the time they can devote to overseeing what Stewart calls a “large, technically complex, and costly department.”
A paid chief, says Stewart, would be measured by their impact on volunteer participation and ability to increase camaraderie between paid and volunteer firefighters.
The Peekskill Volunteer Firefighters Association (PVFA), in a flier that appeared days before the release of Rush’s report, claims that the paid firefighters’ union is influencing City government to push out volunteers. It also alleges that, as a former career chief, Rush is not impartial.
“The Paid Firefighters’ Union pushes at every opportunity to increase their ranks,” says the PVFA flier. “Not for your safety, but to increase their Union membership!” The flier’s rhetoric implies that the hiring of a paid chief and more paid staff will increase taxes in the city.
Following release of the City’s Rush report, PVFA’s John Pappas, the Department’s Deputy Chief, posted on Facebook a PVFA statement responding to its conclusions and recommendations. PVFA claims that, contrary to the City’s report, volunteer ranks continue to grow.
PVFA also claims that the City has “negotiated away the rights of the volunteer chiefs to manage the department” and that, when volunteer chiefs have approached the City Manager to express concerns, they have been ignored.
The volunteers also claim that any effort by the PVFA to recruit new volunteers has “fall[en] on deaf ears.”
“The city has disincentivized recruitment and retention of volunteers during the past years, to include being locked out of the fire house, prohibited new recruits from riding in the apparatus, removing certain amenities including the refrigerator and use of the kitchen/pantry areas,” says the statement.
“In addition, a majority of the paid staff continue to denigrate, demoralize, and verbally abuse the volunteers in the fire house and on the fireground/accident scenes.”
City Manager Stewart denies all of the charges leveled by the PVFA statement, stressing that any complaints of retaliatory action by paid firefighters would be taken seriously by the City.
“Such behavior would be totally unacceptable and result in disciplinary action, first by the fire chief, and then via the city’s HR [human resources] department,” says Stewart. “This kind of unsubstantiated public accusation against fellow firefighters is very disappointing, especially coming from a deputy fire chief.” For his part, despite posting the statement, Pappas disavowed being its author.
Stewart acknowledges that the hiring of a full-time chief would result in elected volunteer chiefs being demoted to assistant chiefs, which he admits “may be a bitter pill to swallow” and is “well understood.”
This is not the first conflict between the City and its volunteer firefighters. PVFA recently filed several lawsuits against the City in an attempt to nullify agreements made between the City and volunteer chiefs in 2018, regarding nepotism issues and training requirements.
The volunteers claim that the chiefs in question were coerced by the City at the time into signing the agreements, through threats of job loss of family members – another claim Stewart vehemently denies. The City has filed a motion in Westchester Supreme Court to dismiss the lawsuits.
Ed Rush was scheduled to formally present his report to Peekskill’s Committee of the Whole on June 7, and a formal decision can be made as early as the next Common Council meeting on June 14.
Despite the bitter divisions that exist in the fire department, City Manager Stewart is hopeful for a mutually beneficial resolution.
“Several years ago, the city consolidated into a beautiful new central fire house, but unfortunately, the divisions that often afflict ‘combination’ departments have just gotten worse over time, not better,” said Stewart in a letter to the volunteers. “Working together, we can transcend ego and personality issues and pick a path forward that is good for everyone.”