The number of Port Chester paid firefighters continues to shrink. With the resignation of the former union president earlier this month followed by the 30-day suspension of another former president, only three men remain available to work.
Following a closed session meeting of the Port Chester Board of Trustees on Jan. 20 involving ‘collective bargaining negotiations between the village and P. C. Professional Firefighters Assn. Local 1971 with regard to the employment status of particular career firefighters,’ one was suspended for 30 days, according to Richard Corenthal, attorney for the union.
‘The suspension of an existing career firefighter is a personnel matter and will be given all the attention necessary to resolve,’ wrote Village Manager Christopher Steers in response to an inquiry from Westmore News.
Seeking to find out more, a call was placed to former Port Chester Professional Firefighters Assn. Local 1971 president Chad Clouting who responded that ‘I’m no longer employed by Port Chester as of Jan. 15.’
His separation from the village was voluntary. ‘I left there and got another job,’ he said. ‘I am happy to say I am no longer involved in the goings-on there.’ He was reemployed as a firefighter in Dutchess County where he had worked before coming to Port Chester.
‘There is no doubt in my mind I made the right decision,’ said Clouting.
Back in November 2014, Westmore News reported that there were only five career firefighters working in the Village of Port Chester and fulfilling the fire service contract with the Village of Rye Brook while 11 were budgeted in Port Chester’s approved 2014-15 spending plan. Another firefighter on the books is in the Air Force on military duty, serving from Aug. 4, 2014 until May 21, 2015. He is not being paid by the village during that time.
Charges against suspended firefighter ‘baseless’
The firefighter who was temporarily suspended, whom Corenthal wouldn’t identify except to say he was a former union president, was let go pending charges the attorney identified as ‘baseless.’
‘Frankly it’s very disturbing they brought these charges,’ he said. ‘I don’t think they were properly investigated.’ In the fireman’s defense, he said ‘the alleged conduct was done so the firefighter could listen to dispatching calls. He couldn’t hear because the music and radios are turned up in the firehouse by others.’
The charges, Corenthal said, are being ‘vigorously opposed,’ and he responded to them Monday, Jan. 26. ‘This shows the dysfunction of the department,’ Corenthal charged. ‘They single out paid firefighters, also a union president. The department does not have anybody in management who is a paid employee of the city. Paid firefighters are used as a scapegoat for the way the department is run.’
The three Port Chester fire chiefs are volunteers. They have routinely let Steers respond on behalf of the village.
Coverage following suspension
After the suspension, there was no paid coverage in Port Chester last Saturday and Sunday during the day, according to several sources.
Corenthal said there was a paid firefighter available who could have come in.
Following last week’s suspension, ‘current scheduling of career personnel is being managed accordingly and it has not affected service delivery,’ Steers responded.
‘A volunteer-paid department is an excellent way of addressing firefighting if it is run properly and not used as a device for labor management reasons,’ the labor attorney said. ‘Here you have a situation where you have a history of a paid department on duty to respond to alarms and have the volunteers respond as well. You are getting the best of both worlds–volunteers and paid that should work hand in hand.
‘Now they have a completely reduced staff down to three,’ Corenthal continued. ‘When firefighters are out, they are not replacing them. They are basically playing Russian roulette hoping there is an adequate response.’
‘The Village is committed to providing excellent fire services to the community,’ responded Steers in a written statement. ‘We have provided this service effectively for over 190 years (since 1868) primarily through the service of volunteers (175-300 members) then through a combination department since 1918. The Village is committed to public safety, to providing excellent fire services to the communities we serve, and to upholding its contractual obligations.’
Dismantling the paid portion of the fire department?
‘They have been dismantling the department from 16 now down to three,’ Corenthal charged. ‘Senior members of the department have retired. Recently another firefighter just left. I think they budgeted the money. I don’t think it’s a matter of not having the resources.’
Corenthal said the village keeps promising to hire more firefighters but then never follows through.
Steers disagreed that the village is dismantling the paid portion of the fire department, although he said it was within their purview to do so.
‘The surrounding personnel issues as of late are self-created on the part of the career personnel involved,’ the village manager said. ‘Honestly I am at a loss as I have never seen anything like it.’ He added that it seems self-destructive.
‘If you want to abolish a department, there are rules under the state law to do it,’ Corenthal said. ‘I believe the law requires a public referendum or vote so the public can weigh in and have a say whether to abolish it or not.’
Steers would beg to differ on this issue since the number of paid firefighters has varied over the years in Port Chester from one to 16. ‘The duties of the paid/career firefighters has varied over the years as well,’ he said. ‘What apparently has not varied over the years is the intended role of the paid/career firefighters. That intended role has been as a support/supplemental role while the role of the Port Chester Fire Department volunteer members has remained a lead role.’
Lack of a contract
What continues to hang over everyone’s head is the Port Chester union of firefighters’ lack of a contract. Their last contract expired May 31, 2011.
‘We filed a [declaration of] impasse because the village took a step back and regressed in their position at the bargaining table,’ Corenthal said. ‘After we believed we made some progress, they went back to wages lower than we had discussed.’
The firefighters’ attorney said he was waiting for confirmation of a state mediator to come in and assist at the end of March.
Basic economic issues and some language cleanup in the contract have not been resolved, he said.
In addition, Corenthal filed a complaint with the village board of ethics ‘because the mayor and another trustee are both volunteer firefighters who should recuse themselves from any decision-making.’
He said he received a response from Village Attorney Anthony Cerreto rejecting his complaint and basically dismissing it.
‘Recent negotiations with the paid fire union have reached an impasse, but we are still at the table working through the issues,’ Steers responded. ‘In no way has the impasse, paid staffing levels, or the budget negatively impacted service delivery to the community.’
Nor has it kept Port Chester from fulfilling the staffing levels in its fire service contract to Rye Brook which, said Steers, ‘is not career personnel centric.’
Morale at an all-time low
Meanwhile morale among the career firefighters is abysmal, Corenthal said, with dedicated senior firefighters having retired in the past year and the staffing level down to three. Plus he thinks ‘it is really terrible how the paid firefighters are being treated. There is no opportunity for them to have a dialogue. If there was more effective management of the department, it would never come to this.’ He said of the 18 firefighter unions he represents in the metropolitan area and Hudson Valley, ‘Port Chester stands alone in the way they treat firefighters.’
Corenthal added that ‘the last thing you should do is to try to build up a conflict between the volunteers and the paid.’
Steers agreed with Corenthal’s final statement, adding that ‘I wonder why it seems they are dedicating so much time and resources to doing just that. The village’s primary concerns remain public safety and fiscal responsibility and there has to be a reasonable balance obtained between the two through rational discussion and discourse and not insinuation and allegation.’
Calls placed to Mayor Neil Pagano to address some of these issues were not returned as of press time.