Fire Study Calls for Merging Fire Departments and EMS into Town-Wide District

Local fire departments, joined by firefighters from beyond Philipstown, battled a devastating house fire next to the Town Hall on Christmas Eve 2009

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 servicesà “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.


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21 thoughts on “Fire Study Calls for Merging Fire Departments and EMS into Town-Wide District

  1. The full report is worth reading, and is available from Town Hall.

  2. Based on my reading of this article these findings are extremely alarming. In particular the refusal of some Fire Departments to participate creates a severe feeling of distrust on my part, someone who they are purporting to protect. This is a disgrace and I feel that those responsible should be called to account.

    The information about staffing is cause for great concern. Do they actually have sufficient trained personnel to fight fires in our village? It makes me uncomfortable when I am solicited for a donation but there is no accountability as to what it is being used for and apparently does not create a functioning fire department.

    I applaud Mr Graner for his report and his courage in suggesting mediation. I definitely support that recommendation and once I have fully read his report would likely endorse most of his recommendations. I think he is also owed an apology for his treatment by ‘our’ firefighters.

    I hope this report will be used to create full scale change in the organization of emergency services. It seems it is uncovering unsavory information that has been hidden far too long. It’s time for people to put their egos aside and work together towards a common end everyone agrees open in an open and frank way. The safety of people and property depend upon in.

    Andrew Hall
    Cold Spring

  3. I think the major unasked question in all of this is…why the decline in volunteerism? Not just in the volunteer emergency services, but in all volunteer groups across the board.

    Perhaps it’s because of people like “Publius” who view them as “clubby, insular places that don’t account to anyone above them…volunteers are public servants”. I guess maybe that’s the real problem, you don’t view them as the unsung heroes that they are, but rather as “servants.”

    I continue to gain more and more insight into all of the back and forth on these boards, and especially the assault on volunteers in general in our community. Condemn everyone who doesn’t agree with the WVG, organize against them, arbitrarily dismiss.

    Publius, get off your high horse.

    A.W.

  4. Mr. Publius,

    I would just like to thank all of our Seal Team Six volunteers for waking up at 3am, helicoptering all the way to Pakistan and killing that b*****d Bin Laden. I would have happily volunteered for the mission, but it was above my pay grade and security clearance.

    Here’s a novel idea…how about we all stop making war on our volunteer organizations, and do something constructive…like volunteer?

    AW

  5. Mr. Publius,

    I would just like to thank all of our Seal Team Six volunteers for waking up at 3am, helicoptering all the way to Pakistan and killing that b*****d Bin Laden. I would have happily volunteered for the mission, but it was above my pay grade and security clearance.

    Here’s a novel idea…how about we all stop making war on our volunteer organizations, and do something constructive…like volunteer?

    AW

  6. I have seen the report WOW!! either its total BS or our Fire and EMS services are in need of a TOTAL overhaul. Communication and dialog must start with out the angst and vitriol. This must happen to make this a better place to live with out the petty bickering. After all these are the people that put out our houses when they are on fire and plug our wounds when we are bleeding. So lets all take a deep breath and start the dialog.

  7. Mr. Publius,

    I started reading your dissertation and a light bulb went off.

    Consolidation…you write “To impartial observers, improvement seems to mean consolidation. There is this extremely compelling common-sense argument: it is that our town is of a size that makes it extremely beneficial to have a consolidated fire district, with a unified command and control, and with centralized accountability, planning and leadership.”

    Well wouldn’t a town of our size also have a compelling argument to combine all of it’s redundant services. How about we start with Municipal Governments. Then School Districts.

    How does that sound?

    We can name it the People’s Republic of Philipstown.

    In all seriousness though – why do we need a Town Board, a Village of Cold Spring Board, a Nelsonville Board, a Haldane School District, a Garrison School District, a Putnam County Sheriff, a Cold Spring PD and on and on…

    In your expert opinion Mr. Publius what is the exact geographic area in which one should consolidate services?

    I will get the ball rolling…I officially call upon Mayor Seth Gallagher to hire a consultant to explore the dissolution of the Village of Cold Spring and to defer his authority to Supervisor Richard Shea and the Town of Philipstown Board.

    AW

  8. It is obvious to anyone who can see past their own agenda that these attacks on the “volunteer”, not servitude, firefighting service are an orchestrated attempt by those unwilling to contribute the time and effort to become firefighters to control those that do.

    After 40+ years of active firefighting, leaving dinner on the table and getting up at 2 AM to respond and then going to work, I will be one of those walking out the door when Shea, Gallagher and a few other politicians who want to further their political careers, fatten their wallets every month and get medical benefits for life on the back of bending the “volunteer” fire service to their view.

    One of my favorite thoughts that has been proven by election even in Philipstown and Cold Spring seems to be appropriate here also;

    ” Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.”

    I always use my name because I am proud to be a VOLUNTEER firefighter, NOT A SERVANT OR EMPLOYEE.

  9. Red herrings?

    Wouldn’t a unified, joint Philipstown government solve everything? Why does Cold Spring and Nelsonville have their own boards and the hamlet of Garrison does not? I’m being serious, perhaps the over-redundant Cold Spring Village Board should dissolve and fall in under the umbrella of Philipstown.

  10. I won’t wade into the fray here, except to offer one observation – Supervisor Shea has made the understatement of the century when describing the tone of the author of the report as coming off “a bit angry.”

    I am also a consultant, although not in anything coming close to this specific field, and my firm often issues these observations/recommendations reports at the conclusion of a review.

    I would have anyone on my team reprimanded, and quite posibly dismissed, if they were to publicly issue a report with inflamatory, personally directed statements and what could be viewed as borderline character assassination. Making written assumptions about egos and motivations of individuals who did not participate in the review and presenting them as facts in a written set of recommendations is not something I would condone.

    It is a shame, as there looks to be a good amount of substantive analysis and data within the body of report, however the executive summary and conclusions hit you right over the head with subjective opinion being presented as fact. Even if the substance of the other recommendations is sound (I’m not an expert in this field, so have no basis to conclude either way), the tone of the report goes a long way in disqualifying them.

    If the author has a strong case for his recommendations, he should be able to make the case factually and objectively. If he resorts to unverifiable assumptions and armchair psychology on egos and motivations, then a reasonable person would question the true strength of his underlying case and what biases or preconceived notions may have influenced it.

    The tone of this report comes off as something more appropriate for a message board comment or blog entry than for a report to our Town/Village.

    We the taxpayers paid for this?

  11. I’m confused, you have based a majority of your reasoning for consolidation on the possibility of a terror attack or large incident. Then you say this, “I could be wrong, but I’ve been living here a long time and don’t recall a critical incident or mass-casualty incident occuring here, or anywhere near here. By that I mean a train derailment, a large explosion or industrial accident with numerous injuries, a forest fire that threatened homes, a release of hazardous material, a large fire in a commerical or apartment building full of people, an explosion, etc. Please let me know if our fire companines have a lot of experience with this, because I’d admit I was wrong and it would reassure a lot of people.”

    If you can’t remember the last time something like this happened – why is it something that should be a major consideration regarding the consolidation. Consolidation won’t make any one of these emergency volunteers more or less educated. There are required classes for each branch and these classes will remain exactly the same, consolidated or not.

    As a lifelong resident, one-time CSFC member and daughter and relative to MANY Cold Spring volunteer fireman I am amazed at the ridiculousness that has carried on over the last few weeks. I remember many times (as my father referenced earlier) when my family and I ate our dinner without my dad who ran out at the sound of the whistle. I remember waking up at 2 in the morning to watch my father run out the door in whatever he could grab so that he could hop on a truck and stay up for hours to help someone he might not have even known. I remember my parents both stopping for an accident where a woman was killed, just after it happened before the firetrucks got there. Most people would have continued on after, of course, slowing down to look at the wreck.

    This is what makes a volunteer. Someone who gets up at 2am for a fire, gets back to bed at 5am and up at 6am to catch the train to go to their jobs and who stop at an accident instead of slow down to look. These men and women who volunteer their time are not servants in any sense of the word. Servants work their 12 hour shifts and are off duty after. The members of our volunteer fire companies, ambulance corps and other emergency services are heros because their shift doesn’t end. Next time you drive by any firehouse in Philipstown and you see people outside, why don’t you stop and thank them instead of saying it on here. Make them feel appreciated. I can’t imagine any of them do after all the press recently.

  12. “That makes him very qualified, in my book, and he’s not a local, so he probably has no local biases.”

    Actually Publius, if you read the article, he was a local.

    “A former Philipstown resident and Haldane High School graduate, Graner began his firefighting career with the now-defunct Nelsonville fire department.”

  13. “That makes him very qualified, in my book, and he’s not a local, so he probably has no local biases.”

    Actually Publius, if you read the article, he was a local.

    “A former Philipstown resident and Haldane High School graduate, Graner began his firefighting career with the now-defunct Nelsonville fire department.”

  14. I found this passage striking:

    The most important step in review of this study and in development of strategic planning for fire rescue and EMS services is for the community and community leaders to reach out and to assure all active volunteers that they each are a vital part of this system and that the community needs them to continue to serve as volunteers.

    The report does not criticize the rank-and-file volunteers of our emergency services. No, the criticism — and it is quite strong — is reserved for the current leadership of the fire and EMS companies.

  15. Mr. Freimark,

    On the issue of leadership…I refer you back to this article of Novemeber 26, 2010 https://highlandscurrent.org/?p=6857).

    I find the following passage striking:

    “Should the Town Board decide to pursue consolidation, Cold Spring officials would have to choose whether to participate — even if the Cold Spring Fire Company opposes consolidation. “At some point it’s going to be a big decision for us, based on our fire department that we have to consider and our tax base that we have to consider” and weighing “facts, figures, and what’s best for everybody.”

    Seems to me the failure of leadership here, might lie with the politicians and not the volunteers. Has anyone actually run the financial numbers? The report that everyone has been fighting about was already called “colored” and “angry” by the very people that sanctioned it in the first place.

    I still find it very mysterious that Mr. Freimark has latched onto this issue so concisely. It’s almost like it’s become the new mantra of the Working Village Group.

    Gallagher = Good. Volunteers = Bad.

    Interesting.

    A.W.

  16. The leadership of our Emergency Services do not operate in a vacuum, they are not authoritarians. They are held accountable by the volunteers that they serve, and the public. That being said, and I cannot speak for every volunteer member in Philipstown, but the one’s I have spoken to overwhelmingly do not support Town-wide consolidation. Just as in all matters of Democracy, leaders represent their constituency or the will of the body.

    Is there room for improvements? Of course there are. In all areas of EMS. Is a Town-wide consolidation the way to go? According to the rank and file, no.

    The Cold Spring Fire Company placed an editorial in the PCNR last week with a sole message; we are not a political organization. We do not wish to become involved in the machinations of local politics. Do I think this report was a fair representation of the professionalism and commitment of the members of Cold Spring, no. Beyond that, whatever political motivations are behind publishing this report, just as those behind the fire siren matter last year, I will leave to the public to decide.

    In light of that, it absolutely breaks my heart to hear long time volunteers in our area, men and women who are far from anything resembling ego-centric, (and who have freely given thousands of hours of their time to the community) call, approach me on the street, and write saying that they feel like they want to walk away. How do you answer that? Other than to remind them why we all volunteered in the first place; in order to do good on behalf of the community.

    In closing, I would like to invite Mr. Hall, Mr. Freimark, Mr. Publius, Mr. Warren, Mr. Bardes and anyone else from the community that have any questions about the Cold Spring Fire Company to stop by on a Tuesday evening, or contact myself, the Chief or any member on the street. We may be reached via the Company Info tab on our website (http://coldspringfd.org/).

    Lets stop the rhetoric, acknowledge the issues, and work towards resolution.

    Michael Bowman
    CSFC

  17. First of all, I would like to thank all of our fire companies and EMS volunteers for their wonderful service to our community. I think they have done an outstanding job volunteering their time in our community.

    To Michael Bowman, your posting is very well written and I thank you for your leadership.

    I believe that all of the fire and EMS volunteers are due an apology!

  18. Tom was very correct in his comments and observations. That having been said – there are a number of inaccuracies in the RFG report that cannot be ignored. There are also some very valid facts and observations contained within.

    Some facts regarding a fire district:

    1) They are a governmental entity like a town or village that sets it’s own budget and sets it’s own tax levy. The people who serve on a Board of Fire Commissioners are elected by the community – not appointed by the elected officials except when the district is first established. Fire Districts are directly accountable to the community, not a branch of the local government.

    2) Fire Districts cannot third party bill for EMS/Ambulance services such as are provided by the Philipstown and Garrison VACs. This is a major source of income for these two agencies and helps pay for the paid staffing that exists in both organizations. Consolidation of EMS agencies into a fire district would have an immediate financial implication for all Philipstown residents.

    I will not offer further comment on a forum or list server. Too much can be misconstrued.

  19. Excellent post Mr Bowman. Now that makes sense. Not like the other posts that i have been reading . Its hard to be civil and have dialog with people who refuse to list thier real name and feel free to berate and defile others under various pen names. That kind of weasel journalism should not be allowed as it gives a platform for people to assault others with out accountability as to what they write. I appalaud you for leaving yourself and the Fire company open for the fair exchange of ideas. On the record I and my family support the Emergency services that we have here in the village. With out the professionalism and dedication of our Fire dept members my home probably would have sustained much more damage than it did a few years ago when i had a fire. Is there room for improvement yes– always. As in any organization that strives to serve the public especially in these trying economic times.

    Tony Bardes

  20. It is interesting to read all of the comments and concerns about the recent fire rescue EMS study that I conducted for the Town of Philipstown. I have been requested by the Town to make a personal presentation to the community about this report on June 8 at 7PM. It will be at the PHILIPSTOWN COMMUNITY CENTER AT GLENCLYFFE in Garrison off route 9 D

    I will present the factual background about this study and how it was conducted and present an overview of my findings and recommendations. There will also be a question and answer period after my presentation in an effort to help the community address the serious issues noted in the study. This meeting is open to all.

  21. YOSHI…your comment
    “The only department that did was N. Highlands who does have a paid administrator, a secretary/treasurer who happens to be the wife a member of the town board. (a little conflict of interest)This report comes off as a response to the fact that there was not a lot of cooperation.”
    You’re off base here…if you think it’s a conflict of interest…bring it up with the State Comptrollers Office who doesn’t seem to have the same opinion as you. Yes, my position is paid, we are a District (but the information requested required ‘extra time’ on my part…and I do not get extra pay for doing so….neither here nor there….all departments should be accountable to the taxpayers if their taxes are used to fund certain aspects of providing emergency services.
    I too am a volunteer firefighter for 20+ years…there are many emotions that come from this report and this forum is not the place to try and hash them out (FJ put it to the point…no more should be written to be misconstrued)…I plead that all who are interested or have comments to this report, come to the June 8th meeting. BTW…I agree with others on this forum…if you can’t use your real name…don’t comment at all.