Larchmont Fire Chief Richard Heine announced this week that he will be retiring after 20 years as a career firefighter in Larchmont. He will be leaving sometime after April 30, the date announced at the February 22 Larchmont Village Board meeting.
(Updated, Feburary 26, 2010) Chief Heine’s retirement at age 44 comes three years after his controversial appointment as chief, a position held for decades by a volunteer firefighter. The hiring of a paid chief led to two legal challenges and resignations by large numbers of active volunteer firefighters. (Larchmont Appoints Paid Fire Chief; Many Volunteers Resign.)
Larchmont Trustee Josh Mandell, currently the fire commissioner and the only candidate for mayor in the March 16 elections, said leadership of the department will be split between a career and volunteer officer after the chief retires, at least for the short term.
Captain John Caparelli, promoted last October, will oversee the career staff, while also serving as a daytime shift commander.Second Deputy Chief Sam Orans, installed this January after rejoining the department, will supervise the volunteers and preside over the fire council, the department’s governing body comprised of members elected by the four volunteer companies.
According to Mr. Heine, the board has asked that he stay on past April 30 to help with the transition.
“Chief Heine came into office at a very momentous time and has shepherded the department and the community through some difficult times,” said Mayor Liz Feld. “We are very grateful to him for his service.”
“Rich is the only chief I have known,” said Trustee Josh Mandell, who is also a volunteer firefighter. “He took charge of the department and moved it in a new direction. He did all this without as much help as he would have liked. But we are very lucky to have him as chief.”
Another recent volunteer, John Ponponio, praised the chief at the board meeting. “I’ve had a wonderful experience working with Chief Heine these past few years. He did a great job rebuilding the ranks of the volunteers. The volunteers and career people work together and train together. l can’t say enough good things about how this man has gotten things back on track.”
What Comes Next?
“We are happy that he gave us some notice – that’s helpful,” said Mr. Mandell. Going forward, “All options are on the table.”
Does that include a return to a volunteer chief? Mr. Mandell said, “I don’t want to take any option off the table.”
It is clear, however, that without a return of more experienced volunteers, it would be difficult to fill the chief’s position for very long.
And how about a possible consolidation with the Town of Mamaroneck’s fire department? Mr. Mandell is a member of a tri-municipal task force which is soon expected to issue a report on shared services. But he was not willing to speculate at this point.
“Potential consolidation with the Town of Mamaroneck – or any other municipality – is a much bigger issue and the decision relating to this issue should not be based on the retirement of one individual in the fire department, “ he said.
What’s Next for Chief Heine?
Since last October, Chief Heine had been on leave for extended periods, fueling speculation that he was using accumulated vacation and personal days in anticipation of retiring as soon as he was eligible this year. Larchmont Village has been reducing the amount of leave employees may “bank” so as to reduce large cash payments for unused days when an employee retires. (Westchester ‘s new county executive, Rob Astorino, proposed similar limits after having to pay around $700,000 in sick pay for exiting employees, most of them part of the outgoing Spano administration.)
Firefighters may retire after 20 years of service. Retirement pay is 50% of the average salary for the last five years, said the chief. He plans to pursue a degree in public health and public safety and then continue a career in public service – perhaps in another fire department.
He will also continue his military service with the Navy Reserves. Stepping down as chief, a position typically exempt from a call to active duty, increases the chance he could be assigned overseas. He served in both Kuwait and Iraq before becoming chief. (See: Rich Heine Returning From Iraq Heine Returns from Iraq.)
Looking Back – Looking Forward
Asked about his accomplishments, Chief Heine said, “with a lot of help,” he has been able to rebuild the volunteer ranks and “really get both the career and volunteer staff working together.” There are currently 15-20 active volunteers (with another 15-20 on the rolls) and 15 career firefighters. The chief also cited “better accountability” for equipment as an achievement.
“The fires we’ve had have been extinguished with a minimal loss of property,” he said. “I know the department will be in good hands.”
Deputy Chief Orans agreed that the fire department is improving. They are “way better than after Rich took office,” he said. “There’s a new enthusiastic bunch who have stepped up and are trying to fill the gap,” left by the resignation of many experienced volunteers.
Mr. Orans was among the long-term volunteers who left the department. Now , he said, “Captain Caparelli and myself have been working really well together since I was sworn in.”