Setauket fire commissioners say yes to paid firefighters

Setauket fire commissioners say yes to paid firefighters

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Volunteers with the Setauket Fire Department respond to a fire in Poquott Aug. 16. Photo by Bob O'Rourk

The Setauket Fire Department is embarking on new territory.

Commissioners of the Setauket Fire District voted unanimously Aug. 23 in favor of changing the titles of four paid fire protection coordinators to firefighters. The four will be the first paid firefighters in the district’s history.

Before the vote, a public hearing was held to give volunteers and residents the opportunity to air any grievances or ask questions. Approximately three dozen filled the meeting room and hallway as Commissioner Jay Gardiner began the hearing by reading a statement from the board members. He said the decision was the result of commissioners identifying issues in the fire district for several years.

“This is not an indictment on the volunteers. We have said this over and over again. We are all proud of the work of our fire and EMS volunteers.”

— Jay Gardiner

“The changing demographics of the membership of the fire department has been significant, and coupled with the decrease in number of new members, has manifested itself in a decline in the ability to respond to fire alarms with adequate personnel and proper equipment during certain critical periods,” Gardiner said.

The commissioner said the district has come a long way since the days when volunteers worked in the area in local mom and pop stores or as fishermen. He said due to the high cost of living in the area it has become prohibitive for many to establish careers near where they live, and work schedules make it impossible for them to volunteer.

He said the department also has seen a significant rise in the median age of its members. Many of the district’s senior members no longer qualify as interior firefighters due to their advancing age. This becomes an issue during daytime hours.

“Our district today has a daytime population of nearly 95,000 people which includes most of the university, the hospital and the Belle Mead Road corridor,” Gardiner said. “According to the National Fire Protection Association, this categorizes our district as an urban population and the guidelines require a certain number of firefighters as well as an average response time for incidents. It is incumbent upon all of us to make sure we are in reach of this guideline to ensure the safety of our residents.”

Gardiner said the district has been replacing retired fire coordinators with per diem workers who have professional firefighting experience. Under the state’s civil service laws, the fire coordinators handled tasks such as fire hydrant and commercial building inspections, but not legally allowed to respond to calls for help.  By changing their position to that of a firefighter, they will begin responding to active fires alongside the volunteers.

The district is looking to have three paid firefighters during the hours of 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. Since the coordinators were already on the payroll, the change of position to paid firefighters will not affect the district’s budget.

Gardiner added there is no intention to fully replace the volunteer system, but the coordinators-turned-firefighters will help augment the volunteers already in place.

“God help us if your proposal to pay three or four firefighters causes a drop in volunteer morale and participation.”

— Tom Gulbransen

“This is not an indictment on the volunteers,” he said. “We have said this over and over again. We are all proud of the work of our fire and EMS volunteers.”

Ken Larsen, firefighter and honorary chief, read a letter from volunteer Tom Gulbransen, who felt the district was giving too much attention to paid staff. He asked the commissioners to reconsider the best method to address the shortage of available volunteers to respond to daytime calls. Gulbransen suggested the fire department and district could work together to develop multiple options.

“God help us if your proposal to pay three or four firefighters causes a drop in volunteer morale and participation,” Larsen read. “It is unsafe and unprofessional to propose these myopic single steps in isolation.”

Former Commissioner Ed Forrester said he felt there hasn’t been enough conversation about the title change, and while he opposed the plan, he said if the commissioners could explain why it’s an absolute need he would back them 100 percent.

“I really think it’s going to be the beginning of the death of the volunteer fire system,” Forrester said. “It’s going to spread like the wildfires out East and it’s going to Selden and Centereach and Coram, and everyone is going to say they need this. I actually feel it’s a want right now.”