Voter referendum only hope to save positions
For nearly a century, the Village of Garden City has been one of only two Long Island municipalities (the other being the city of Long Beach) that utilized a fire department that was a hybrid of paid/career firefighters and volunteers. Based on a resolution passed by the village board of trustees at a July 25 board meeting that abolishes the paid/career part of the fire department, this current set-up may be dismantled by Aug. 27 at midnight.
The 12 paid/career firefighters have been placed on paid administrative leave and the village is currently being served by more than 100 volunteer firefighters. The decision will not be finalized until the end of the month because the resolution is subject to a permissive referendum. Residents opposed to the board decision have 30 days to collect signatures from 20 percent of the village electorate from the last general election. If these signatures are collected, the process would be stopped and the resolution would be put on the ballot for a village-wide referendum vote.
Like the rest of the village, longtime Garden City resident and Garden City Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 1588 Union President TJ Michon only found out about the board’s vote when the agenda for the upcoming meeting was posted a mere 48 hours before the meeting was to take place. For Michon, the board’s decision is a matter of public safety.
“The advantage of having paid firefighters is that you have people on duty in the firehouse 24 hours a day. When a call comes in, there’s an immediate response. Traditionally what would happen in Garden City, we had self-dispatch and three firehouses. An emergency call would enter the firehouse and would have the capability of being answered by all three firehouses at the same time. The guy who caught it would answer the phone, take the information and as soon as the nearest firehouse to the location heard the address, they would hang up the phone, get on the truck and start driving to the call,” he explained.
“Traditionally, in Garden City, with the combination fire department and 24-hour coverage, we’ve been able to put water on a fire within five minutes. Not a knock on any of the volunteers or their abilities, but because of the way that the system is [currently] set up, they are alerted, then you respond to the firehouse, get the apparatus and the crew and then you respond to the scene. So it’s very rare that they can get water on a fire within 10 minutes. That makes a big difference.”
According to a statement released by Garden City trustees, “For many years the village has been reviewing the services provided by, and costs associated with, all of its departments and staff, including the fire department. Over the past decade, the village board of trustees has taken numerous steps to improve the efficiency and operations of the fire department, including the abolishment of the paid/career fire captain position in 2010; the commissioning of a comprehensive fire department study by the International City/County Management Association in 2012; the layoff of six paid/career firefighters and demotion of one paid/career fire lieutenant in 2013; the recruitment and addition of volunteer firefighters; collective bargaining and interest arbitration proposals; the transfer of fire dispatch duties to Nassau County Fire Communications; and the reduction of paid/career staff through attrition.”
While a comprehensive study was done in 2012, many of the recommendations were ignored with the exception of transferring the dispatching of calls from in-house to the county. Not unlike this recent decision, that recommendation was done in the middle of the summer with the public only being informed of the decision after it was made according to Michon.
“The one recommendation that was immediately instituted was only done in August  under the cover of darkness. I think there was a special meeting at the library in July and they accepted this part of the report. A few weeks later, they changed dispatching from in-house to the county. Ultimately, when questioned that the numbers in the report may not be correct, instead of investigating and looking further into it, they just moved forward with their decisions,” Michon said.
“And that was maybe one out of 14 recommendations or so. All the other recommendations in there were ignored. One other recommendation was that there be a full, comprehensive risk analysis of Garden City by an independent company to come in and do a risk analysis. Until they had that done, to see if changes could be made or not, you have to do that first. That’s never been done.”
For Michon, the largest issue has been village leadership not doing more to open this major decision up for discussion in a public forum. He feels that petitioning to have what the trustees are looking to do put to a vote will allow for residents to make a more educated decision.
“All we ask of the residents at this point is that because of the lack of information and what seems to be the lack of data by the board of trustees at the meeting, we ask [they] sign a petition to be able to give themselves a choice and the opportunity to educate themselves more on what’s going on. Then after getting educated, they can make the choice to go to the polls and vote one way or the other,” he said. “We’re not asking people to sign this petition because they don’t want to get rid of their fire department. We’re asking for people to sign the petition so that they can make that decision, get the facts and then make an educated choice.”
For more information, visit www.gardencityny.net. For details about the petition, visit www.nyspffa.org, www.facebook.com/Gardencityprofessionalfirefighters or call 516-376-1591.