By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
A newly released study urges the merger of Philipstown’s four fire departments into a single, town-wide fire district with an administrative structure that also encompasses the two ambulance corps. Prepared by Ron Graner, a veteran firefighter, chief and nationally recognized expert hired by the Town of Philipstown, the 119-page report cites damaging “ego-centric department leadership” while noting the presence of “a core group of extremely hard working and dedicated volunteers” serving their fellow residents. The study involved the Cold Spring Fire Company Number 1, North Highlands Fire Department (also known as the North Highlands Engine Company 1), Garrison Volunteer Fire Company, Continental Village Fire Department, Philipstown Volunteer Ambulance Corps, and Garrison Volunteer Ambulance Corps.
Graner conducted meetings with fire and ambulance corps members as well as elected officials and the public in January and in his report discussed the difficulties he himself faced in eliciting information or cooperation, outlining as well as incidents of apparent intimidation by some department personnel seeking to prevent their colleagues from speaking out. Of the six services, he also observed that “neither [the] Garrison nor Philipstown ambulance corps provided any information for this study.”
Graner defined as “the driving force” behind his scrutiny “the question `what is in the public’s best interest?” In four key “strategic recommendations, highlighted in his executive summary, he concluded that it is essential to combine the six services and take immediate steps, including mediation, to end serious rifts between the services and elected officials and public. “We strongly recommend the dissolution of the current duplicative governing administrative structures of the existing agencies and the formation of a single, Joint Fire District under the laws of New York State,” Graner wrote for RFG Fire Rescue Consulting, his Georgia-based firm. “This Joint District should also include a single Emergency Medical Service District under the same administrative structure. The Joint Fire District should conduct the strategic planning and management of all fire rescue and EMS service within the township to improve efficiency, effectiveness and safety.” In a related recommendation, he cited a “fragmented administrative organizational structure under which fire rescue and EMS services is currently being provided” that should “be changed for effectiveness and efficiency.” Most importantly, he added, “the administrative structure must be changed for the safety of the people who risk their lives and safety to volunteer and for the safety of the greater community they serve.”
Graner’s fourth key recommendation proposes that “every effort must be taken to encourage all active volunteers to work together with each other and with the greater community for the betterment of fire rescue & EMS services in the community as a whole.” However, he emphasized in his first recommendation, “before any action can be taken to address the administration of the fire rescue and EMS services in Philipstown, it is imperative that the leaders of the current agencies and the elected leaders of the town and the villages immediately engage the services of trained skilled mediator(s) and counselor(s) to help the leaders and the members of each of the fire rescue and EMS agencies and all elected officials to understand and address the dangerous issues that exist at every level of fire rescue and EMS services in Philipstown.” All parties concerned need “to understand their role and how the community as a whole needs to work together” to address serious, ongoing problems, he said. Immediate action is necessary on several fronts, he advised: “The fact in Philipstown is that the current egocentric leadership of the fire rescue and EMS agencies has created a severe negative impact on safety of present service delivery, and these issues must be addressed immediately by the elected officials of the villages, the town and by the general public.”
Town Supervisor Richard Shea suggested May 15 that “the consultant comes off as a bit angry — and it may be justified considering the way he was treated. That being said it does color the report.” At the same time, Shea said, “there is a lot of valuable information in the study and the Town Board will be reviewing it with the fire companies to evaluate how to move forward with a plan that ‘balances limited revenue’ and ‘manpower,’ while providing efficient and effective ’emergency service protection.'”
Members of the services involved did not comment immediately on Graner’s findings. One official, Michael Bowman, president of the Cold Spring Fire Company, explained Tuesday evening that “the leadership of the CSFC will be reviewing the findings further with the membership and discussing it at an upcoming meeting”.”
Staffing and related problems
Funded by a New York State Local Government Efficiency grant, Graner’s report includes 37 strategic recommendations and 40 related specific recommendations; its chapters and sub-sections bear such titles as Examples of Overt Leadership Failures, Intimidation of Members of the Fire Rescue and EMS Services, Fire and EMS Service Operations, Information Received from Philipstown Fire Rescue and EMS Agencies, Fire Stations and Apparatus Observations, and more. A former Philipstown resident and Haldane High School graduate, Graner began his firefighting career with the now-defunct Nelsonville fire department. Among other problems facing the six organizations, he said he discovered “clear evidence of too few people doing too many things in order for these agencies to continue service to the public.” On one relatively brighter note, he pointed to “a high level of positive activity and participation in the North Highlands fire district,” an agency that he suggested “also appears to have an open communications with the public they serve as evidenced by the recent vote to approve funding for the current station.”
Elsewhere in the document, he praised the North Highlands firefighters for providing requested information on staffing, one of many aspects of operations he probed. “The NHFD is to be commended for providing their staffing information for this study. Their honest presentation of the facts surrounding their staffing provides the agency and the community with information that will aid strategic planning to develop ways to address staffing issues,” he wrote. Among facts gleaned from the material, he noted that of the total of 50 active firefighters, only 65 percent “were currently medically certified for duty and only 50 percent of the total membership were certified for interior firefighting; 31 percent of the total members reported not being available some days of the week and approximately 28 percent ‘reported not being available during normal business hours,” 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Regarding the same issue, he added, “the Cold Spring Fire Company did not provide the comprehensive overview of its membership as shown above.” Nevertheless, he said, CSFC “did submit the total membership for each of the past 10 years. There is no way to analyze how many of those members are medically certified for interior firefighting duties or the age range of the total membership, which is an important factor in the examination of staffing capabilities.” He said that “the 10-year continuous downhill slide of volunteer members in the Cold Spring Fire Company reflects trends nationwide. Today the agency is providing service with a membership that is only 63 percent of what it was just 10 years ago. This highlights the needs shown in this report to monitor staffing capabilities and to improve volunteer recruitment and retention.”
According to Graner, the Garrison fire company did not provide data on age or availability but “reported that they currently have approximately 44 active members, 25 of which are rated as interior firefighters.” For Continental Village, with 55 firefighters, “only 38 percent of those were currently medically certified for duty and only 51 percent of the total membership were certified for interior firefighting.” He added that the sketchiness of the information provided by departments in several cases gave him the distinct impression that fire department “leaders are fully aware of deficiencies in their staffing and that they fear the community becoming aware of those staffing deficiencies.” Although proposing that the fire and emergency services be administratively merged, Graner explained that “we generally strongly support the concept of neighborhood fire stations” and “want to see local authorities maintain the character of local stations within each community wherever fiscally and operationally possible.”
Allegations of “Repeated Leadership Failures,” intimidation, and untruths
He took the leaders of the services to task in several specific instances. “In our attempts to conduct this investigation we discovered serious systemic negative issues in the leadership structures as they exist today,” Graner wrote. “We observed repeated evidence of leadership failures of senior leaders in the Continental Village, Garrison and the Cold Spring fire departments and the Philipstown or Garrison EMS agencies. The leaders of each of those agencies have, in general, failed to develop open communications with the people they serve, and even have failed to communicate with and lead their own volunteers.” He further claimed that “leaders in each of the agencies have an egocentric view of ‘their’ local fire rescue and EMS services, and those leaders have demonstrated a long-term failure to work and plan in harmony with neighboring companies.” Moreover, he stated, “each agency has leaders who have viewed operations, staffing, recruitment, retention, apparatus maintenance and purchasing and the many other facets of modern management as department-oriented separate issues, rather than as inclusive community issues.” Consequently, he asserted, this attitude “has created an atmosphere that is not as effective, efficient, or safe as it should be.”
He also pointed to a perceived breakdown in communication, both within departments and with the public and local government. “The failures of leaders to communicate with the taxpayers and their elected officials was clearly evidenced by the leadership-directed refusal to participate in this study and the overt public intimidation of department members who did want to participate in this taxpayer-funded study for the good of the greater community,” he report wrote. In one case, Graner declared, the Cold Spring Fire Company conducted “a membership vote to censure any member who participated in this study or who attended any meetings for this study. While rescinded at a subsequent meeting, [it] demonstrates a failure of their leadership understanding of their role in communicating with the taxpayers who support the services of this department,” Graner wrote. Similarly, he said, when he asked department leaders when they might respond to survey forms he had dispatched both by e-mail and by computer flash drives sent priority mail, “I was informed by senior officer representatives of the Cold Spring, Garrison and Continental Village departments that they had been directed by their leadership not to participate in the study of fire rescue and EMS services.” Consequently, he wrote, members of the various services, citing “fear of reprisal from senior leaders in their agencies,” told him privately that they declined to speak in his public sessions about the problems they see. “Allowing intimidation of members of the fire rescue EMS services at an open public meeting or at internal meetings is a serious red flag for serious defects in leadership,” Graner said.
Similarly, he raised allegations of efforts aimed at “spreading untruths and fears among those served “in the community” and cited a rumor that the Garrison fire department would be closed. “Having some members and leaders of the emergency services publically spreading untrue rumors about community fire rescue and EMS services to cause undue fear in the public is an outrageous failure of leadership at best,” Graner said. Overall, he wrote, the servicesÃ “ego-centric department leadership failures are long-term in nature, with some going back for generations in the community.” He expressed the opinion that the failings stemmed not from “an overt act of disrespect to the community - but from a failure to understand their role as modern fire and EMS officials.
In a handful of final comments and recommendations on the last page of the report, he stated that “as a minimum, those in leadership roles in the fire rescue and EMS agencies must be re-educated about their roles in leadership in their departments. They must relearn that they will be held accountable to the public they serve.” If the leadership “cannot refocus on the greater community needs,” he advised, “their replacement with community leaders who will do what is in the public’s best interests should be considered.” Furthermore, he emphasized, “it is imperative that the villages and the town promptly move forward with addressing the strategic and specific recommendations in this report and reorganize the fire rescue and EMS services.“