Volunteers & Chief Battle Over Leadership & Fire Safety

by Judy Silberstein*

(January 17, 2008) A contentious Fire Council meeting on Monday, January 14 revealed how bitter relations are between many of the remaining volunteer firefighters and Fire Chief Richard Heine, the career firefighter installed by the Village Board in May of 2007. The first half of the meeting included heated arguments between the chief and the five volunteer representatives on the council over eligibility for fire company leadership positions. The second half featured the volunteers peppering the chief with questions about the functioning of the department at the New Years Day fire at Mayor Liz Feld’s home. (See: New Year's Day Fire Smokes Mayor Feld's Home."

Two residents, addressing the council at the end, said they “could not believe the acrimony” and were “more concerned than ever” about the department. The chief assured them later that meetings are not representative of fire scenes.

Numbers Down, Fire Companies Lack Members to Lead

In response to reduced membership, Carroll Hudders, representing Hose Company, proposed amending the rules to allow associate members, who no longer fight fires, to be elected as a president, vice-president, secretary or treasurer in each of the four companies that make up the volunteer side of Larchmont’s combination volunteer-career department. Many positions are vacant following the resignation of numerous members who opposed the appointment of a career firefighter, rather than a volunteer, to lead the department. (See: Larchmont Appoints Paid Fire Chief; Many Volunteers Resign.)

Years ago, the officers were in the “chain of command” at a fire scene, but now their role is administrative, Mr. Hudders explained later. “The quandary is – we don’t have enough active members.”

Chief Heine adamantly opposed the change: “I don’t think it’s a very good idea to have associate members who are not accountable to be officers,” he said. “We had associate members write checks, give away the memorabilia, give away equipment – that’s outrageous,” he added, referring to recent donations to the Larchmont Historical Society of historical items along with an antique fire engine and funds for its restoration.

Two former company presidents, Ray Maldonado and Sam Orans, later said all members were active during the donation vote, which did not change Chief Heine’s view that they were “quitting and dismantling the department.“

If the volunteers "are finding it difficult to fill the positions in the company, maybe they should consider consolidating. This is something that has been done in the past," Chief Heine suggested.

Ultimately, after a lengthy and acrimonious discussion, Chris MacDonald, the past chief, concluded that everyone except Chief Heine was in favor of the change. To allow for proper notification, the countil voted to consider the amendment at the next meeting.

Who Can Vote, Who Can Serve?

Some sort of consolidation or revamping of the rules may be necessary before the next Fire Council elections in April in order to find sufficient members who are eligible to vote – much less serve. A member must have attended at least 15% of fire calls, training sessions or meetings to participate in an election.

Only 8 out of a total of 27 volunteers now meet the 15% mark, according to attendance records for April-December 2007 distributed by Chief Heine at the meeting. This compares to 27 of 52 members on the list covering the year ending May 2007. (See: affidavit from Deputy Chief PJ Abrahamsen.)

Volunteer Firefighters' Attendance Records

TIME PERIOD

15%+

6-14%

1-5%

0%

Total

May 2006-May 2007
27
10
9
6
52
April 2007-December 2007
8
3
10
8
29

If elections were held today, 4 of the 5 current representatives would be ineligible, having fallen below the 15% threshold. They continue, because “we have to conduct business – we have to pay our bills,” explained the chief. Finding qualified members for the future is a bridge “I will cross when we come to it,” he said.

The Mayor’s Fire: Post-Fire Assessment

Numbers of firefighters – volunteer and career – were also at issue in the council’s review of the New Year’s Day fire, but the greatest discord was over the call for mutual aid from New Rochelle.

Why did Captain Stephen Epstein, the senior career firefighter at the fire and the incident commander, “deviate from long-standing practice” by calling New Rochelle for aid first, asked Mr. MacDonald. And was it right to call New Rochelle to the scene and ask Town of Mamaroneck to cover the firehouse rather than the fire?

Chief Heine said “I’ve given my officers discretion,” and “this fire was good.” He praised all who responded, including the Town of Mamaroneck. “It was a fantastic job by everyone.”

He conceded that he was concerned about “potential incidents” with former Larchmont volunteers who are now with the Town of Mamaroneck Fire Department. “If you had people who were refusing your authority, why would you call them in to work for you?”

Pressed for details, the chief said he did not know when New Rochelle arrived. [The Gazette learned later from Westchester County’s emergency dispatch, 60 Control, that New Rochelle was called at 6:44:01 and arrived at 6:53:59, approximately 10 minutes later.]

When pressed further, the chief lashed out at Mr. MacDonald, criticizing him for his own practice of calling Port Chester before New Rochelle, which is closer. He also described a past incident in which the Town of Mamaroneck responded to a call of “smoke showing” with only one engine, its chauffeur and one volunteer . “With New Rochelle [an all career department] you know what you are getting,” he said.

“If anyone was offended by not being called to the scene, I don’t care,” said the chief. “I’m concerned about providing the best possible fire protection for the Village.”

Who Leads?

The “numbers issue” came up again with respect to the availability of incident commanders, who until their recent resignations included volunteer deputy chiefs who had met additional longevity and training requirements. Mike Wiener, a former fire chief, said the problem needed addressing “knowing you [the chief] can’t be 24/7/365 and given we don’t have deputy chiefs and won’t anytime soon.”

“To do a garage fire required mutual aid from three outside departments? That was a very small fire and we were stretched thin - we were very lucky,” said Mr. Wiener, who was among the first at the scene.

“We don’t have a leadership vacuum,” replied Mr. Heine. “I have full faith and confidence in the career firefighters and volunteer firefighters to get everything done.” Earlier, he had counted 8 Larchmont volunteers and 7 career firefighters (from two overlapping shifts plus one on overtime) at the fire. He did not include himself - he had taken the day off and had his pager unplugged - even though he was in communication by phone and showed up in the first hour.

That did not satisfy Mr. Wiener’s concern for safety. He questioned whether there were enough people to fight the fire while also following federal safety guidelines for supervising the scene and keeping track of firefighters. “You can’t have the incident commander take the first line in [to a fire] – they can’t insure everything is getting done and make sure we have the proper control,” he stressed. “It’s the numbers I’m concerned about.”

Chief Heine conceded, “those are good points,” that merit further review, but “they are nothing new.”

“Fighting a fire without a chief is new – fighting the fire for an elongated time without someone whose sole function is incident command is new,” said Mr. Wiener. He suggested it might be time to consider hiring additional professional staff.

“We’ll look into it,” said Chief Heine. The department has just added two new firefighters to fill anticipated retirements and is interviewing candidates to fill a spot left by a recent resignation (“for better pay and benefits,” said the chief).

Will there be requests for more staff in the budget meetings that begin this week? The chief was noncommittal.

Resident Reaction

Having sat through the lengthy meeting, one long-term resident, Irene Salzburg, rose at the end to voice her dismay that “there was so much dissension between the chief and the volunteers.” Another resident, Chris Plaut, was angry with both sides. “Everyone is at fault,” he said, “I’m concerned about having a fire and you’re outside punching each other.”

Ms. Salzburg asked the chief if he could “see it in your heart to retract your statement and to rely again on" the former volunteers who are now with Mamaroneck Town.

“Absolutely, said Chief Heine. “At this point in time, it’s probably not the best idea, but there will be a time, absolutely.“


Judy Silberstein is married to Ned Benton, one of the former volunteer firefighters and a plaintiff in two suits against the Larchmont Fire Chief and Village Board.