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Jay Gardiner

Former Setauket Fire District commissioner Jay Gardiner recently received a proclamation for his service from Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn. Photo from Kara Hahn’s office

When Jay Gardiner decided last year not to run for reelection for fire commissioner in the Setauket Fire District, the former chairman of the board put the cap on decades of fire rescue experience.

Jay Gardiner, second from left, celebrates the grand opening of the district’s main firehouse in 2019 with former Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, Fire Chief Paul Rodier and Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine. Photo by Bob O’Rourk

The longtime member of the Setauket Fire Department, who completed 30 years of volunteer service at the end of 2019, said he and his wife, Diane, are planning to move to Florida at the end of the year. While the soon-to-be 70-year-old is looking forward to spending more time with his wife and playing golf, he said he will still run his business Gardiner Plastics from a home office. The former commissioner said if he didn’t do some kind of work, he would be bored.

“I’ve been a workaholic most of my life,” he said.

When Gardiner joined the fire department in 1989, he already had 20 years of community service under his belt. Originally from Fresh Meadows, he served as an EMT in Queens with several volunteer ambulance crews.

“I’m a city boy, but I moved here in ’86,” he said. “It still makes me an old-timer, but that’s late compared to a lot of people that I know.”

Through the decades, in addition to volunteering with the department, he was an EMS lieutenant for the last 12 years. He was also an associate professor of Emergency Medical Care at Suffolk County Community College for 20 years, and he taught instructor-level courses for Suffolk EMS. At St. Francis Hospital, he was on the training faculty where he taught advance life support courses to its medical staff.

The South Setauket resident was appointed as commissioner in May of 2015 to fill the remainder of the term previously held by Thomas Gallagher. Later that year, Gardiner was elected to a five-year term as commissioner, and during his last three years on the board, he served as chairman.

When Gardiner first ran for fire commissioner in 2015, he said he felt his business background would come in handy. The former commissioner holds an MBA from the NYU Stern School of Business and has served on several organizational boards in the plastic industry.

When it comes to the board of fire commissioners and the departments in the district, Gardiner sees it as a team effort, and he’s proud of what the district has accomplished over the last few years.

“You can’t get the fire truck or the ambulance to the scene with one person,” he said. “It takes a group of people. It takes an officer. It takes a crew. It takes a driver. And if you don’t have all those working together, you don’t have an efficient department or an efficient board. The board has to work together, we have to be a team, and we’ve been very fortunate.”

“The board has to work together, we have to be a team, and we’ve been very fortunate.”

— Jay Gardiner

Some of the accomplishments Gardiner listed include the renovation of the main firehouse on Route 25A, the purchase of four new fire engines and updated equipment such as radios and air packs to modernize the emergency system. He also counts the addition of a few career firefighters during the day to the department as an accomplishment of the board.

“We were the first one on Long Island to actually call them career firefighters,” Gardiner said. “Nobody wanted to take that jump. It’s not an indictment on the volunteers.”

While it was a tough decision, he said the commissioners have a responsibility to the community. 

“Your job is a fiduciary responsibility to take care of that community, and 30 years ago, there were loads of people who lived in the community during the day, they could respond to the alarms,” he said. “The demographic has totally changed.”

With his departure from the board of commissioners, one of his teammates for decades, John Wastiewiz, took over as chairman of the board. Wastiewiz said he has known Gardiner since before the latter joined the fire department, when his wife worked for Gardiner Plastics. Wastiewiz described the former commissioner as the ultimate professional, and said he considered Gardiner the go-to guy, especially when it came to questions about EMS.

“Everything he’s done, whether it’s paramedic or fire commissioner, he’s always strived to be the best and constantly improving his skills and education, and he’s just a very good guy in general.” Wastiewiz said.

Gardiner said when it comes to being a volunteer firefighter he misses responding
to scenes.

“My wife always looks at me and she goes, ‘You miss it, don’t you?’” he said. “I say, ‘Yup,’ but everything has its time.”

When he moves to Florida, he said he will also miss the Three Village area, where his children grew up and went through the Three Village school district. He said he will especially miss the sense of local history and the area near Emma Clark library and the Frank Melville Memorial Park.

“We’ve always loved living in this area,” he said. “It has good restaurants and good people. The civics and the chamber of commerce do a lot of work to try to build up the area.”

However, while Gardiner and his wife may be moving, he said they will be back to visit as their four children, three daughters-in-law and three grandchildren live on Long Island.

When asked if he had some advice to share with his fellow Setauket firefighters, Gardiner said it’s important to remember the constant commitment to the community. 

“Never get complacent,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement. It gives you the motivation to push forward. You don’t want to say, ‘I’m done.’”

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The Setauket Fire Department’s Engine Company #1 firehouse is officially up and running.

Hundreds of residents, along with Setauket fire commissioners, legislators and volunteer firefighters, both local and neighboring, were on hand to celebrate the ribbon cutting of the renovated firehouse on the corner of Main Street and Old Town Road June 23.

Jay Gardiner, fire commissioner and chairman of the board, said the department has been serving the community for 108 years.

“Today we mark a milestone in that history as the beautiful new building you see in front of you is a reaffirmation of our commitment to this community, as well as a symbol of the dedication we have to the mission of the Setauket Fire Department, which is to ensure the protection of life and property to our residents,” Gardiner said.

The Setauket Fire Department, which also includes stations on Arrowhead Lane and Nicolls Road, has nearly 200 volunteers, career staff and support personnel who serve an estimated 95,000 people during the day and 26,000 residents in the evening, Gardiner said.

The fire district, which has its headquarters at Hulse Road, also covers Stony Brook University and its hospital in an about 28-square-mile area.

The fire commissioner said the new 23,000-square-foot Main Street facility includes solar heated water, LED lighting, energy recovery ventilation heating/cooling system, a large meeting room, training room and bunk rooms for overnight crews, while the entire building is Americans with Disabilities Act compliant.

“This structure is modern, yet it maintains the historical integrity of our building, complete with the brickwork matching the original building which faces 25A,” he said.

The original southeast corner that was once an asphalt parking lot, he said, is now a green space “to enjoy the view of the historical center of our town.” Gardiner said the fire department hopes the large glacial erratic rock that now sits on the green space will become a new landmark, and he joked that it was a “custom import” found during the excavation of the property.

Among those who spoke before the ribbon cutting was Paul Rodier, chief of department, who thanked the members and their families for their support, especially those who belong to Engine Company #1.

“You guys went without a building for about three years,” he said. “A lot of cold nights to stand by with no heat, plastic chairs.”

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) complimented the fire district for reaching out to the community when it came to renovating and adding on to the building.

“This is a triumph,” Englebright said. “What we’re really looking at is protection and security for our community that deserves both. We are looking at a monument to the creative cooperation between our civics and our fire service. This is in the heart of a historic district, so I really want to salute the fire department and fire district for working to make sure that the essence of this place, this place of Setauket, is reflected in the architecture and in the materials that this building is constructed of. Well done and thank you.”

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) were also in attendance to present the fire department with proclamations.

“Today we’re looking at a building that some people said, ‘Well, it costs a lot of money,’ but 50 years from now we’ll look back and say what a wise decision was made to invest in a building that provides fire services and ambulance services to all the people in the Setauket area,” Romaine said.

After the speeches, William Engels, a 50-year veteran, cut the ribbon surrounded by his fellow firefighters, and the new alarm was sounded. The Setauket Elementary School band also performed during the event, and residents were invited to tour the new facility and to discuss volunteer opportunities with firefighters.

To view more photos from the event, visit www.tbrnewsmedia.com.

Setauket Fire District is seeking to add an additional full-time equivalent paid position to its ranks. File photo by Bob O’Rourk

The Setauket Fire District is looking to add an additional paid firefighter position to its ranks.

On March 14, the district will hold a public hearing to provide residents the opportunity to voice their opinions to fire commissioners about adding one full-time equivalent position — eight hours a day for five days a week — to the district.

Setauket boasts a little more than 100 active volunteer members, and Aug. 23 the commissioners approved three FTE positions, which translated into four per diem fire coordinators transitioning to paid firefighters.

David Sterne, district manager, said industry standard guidelines call for a fire pumper crew to consist of a minimum of four people. In August, after three FTEs were approved, the hope was for three paid firefighters and at least one volunteer to ride together every weekday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“While we’ve had fair amount of volunteer members doing duty crews with our career crew, it is not happening often enough to create the situation where we have a four-person crew the majority of the time during these hours.”

— David Sterne

“While we’ve had fair amount of volunteer members doing duty crews with our career crew, it is not happening often enough to create the situation where we have a four-person crew the majority of the time during these hours,” Sterne said.

The goal of the March 14 decision is to ensure they get a minimum crew during crucial hours.

“The board is not expanding the hours or days of coverage,” Sterne said. “This was all budgeted for and will not impact the budget in any adverse way.”

At the Aug. 23 meeting, approximately three dozen people filled the district headquarters meeting room and hallway. Among the concerned residents that spoke during the public hearing was former fire Commissioner Ed Forrester, who at the time said he felt there hadn’t been enough conversation about the title change.

“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.”

At the meeting, Commissioner Jay Gardiner said the district has come a long way since the days when volunteers worked in the area at local mom and pop stores or as fishermen. He added 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.

Sterne said the commissioners have been actively involved with the department in helping to recruit more volunteers. Another class of recruits is due to be sworn-in.

“The goal of daytime, weekday augmentation is to ensure that the community receives our service quickly from highly trained personnel,” Sterne said. “Whether or not those people receive a paycheck is irrelevant to the person receiving the help. We are very lucky to have the dedicated volunteers we have to provide the service that they provide.”

Sterne added the majority of volunteer members provide overnight crews.

“[They] spend many a sleepless night responding to alarms, only to have to go to their ‘paid’ job the next day,” he said. “It is with a strong sense of pride that these members serve their community, and it is with the same pride that the board looks to help them and provide them with assistance in doing so during the difficult times.”

The public hearing will be held at the Setauket Fire District administration building located at 26 Hulse Road in Setauket, March 14 at 6:30 p.m.

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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.”

South Setauket resident Jay Gardiner says he hopes his background in business can help him lead the Setauket Fire District into another five years of excellence. Photo by Phil Corso

When it comes to his commitment to the Setauket Fire District, newly appointed Commissioner Jay Gardiner is all business.

Gardiner, of South Setauket, was appointed to his job with the district back in May to fill the remainder of the term previously held by Thomas Gallagher and said he has stepped up in his efforts to share his name and face with the greater Setauket community as he heads into a re-election bid later this year. Since being named commissioner, he said he has been calling on his more than two decades working with the fire department, including 12 years as a lieutenant, to ensure the district maintains what he describes as a first-class service with a firm financial foundation.

“I want to see this project through,” Gardiner said, citing ongoing projects to upgrade the Setauket Fire Department grounds among other things in the works within the district. “I can lend my business acumen to my community over the five-year term.”

The roughly 28-square-mile Setauket Fire District has spent the better part of the past year discussing ways to improve and upgrade the Setauket Fire Department, and there have been rough renderings circulating throughout the district mulling over ways to do that. Gardiner said he was anticipating construction at the Main Street firehouse to hopefully begin over the next year and be finished by 2018.

“We need the ability to get the right trucks and new equipment in an efficient way,” he said. “I believe I can be an objective eye throughout the process.”

Gardiner was appointed after the Setauket Fire District’s five-member board interviewed three qualified candidates earlier this year to replace the retiring Gallagher. In a statement posted on the Setauket Fire District’s Facebook page, Gardiner was selected based on his strong background in business, emergency response services leadership and education, as well as his many dedicated years of service, having served with the department since 1989. He has also served as president of Gardiner Plastics, an active leader in the plastics industry.

“The business goal is to see continuous quality improvement,” he said. “The fire department gets every tool it needs, and there are new advancements every day. That’s where being able to budget properly comes in. These are the things that will make a difference in the community.”

Since taking on the position in May, Gardiner said the Setauket Fire District’s ability to respond to emergencies has increased over recent months, thanks to the maintenance and upgrading of state-of-the-art equipment and a neighbors-first mentality.

“We believe in community,” he said. “We are part of the community, and the people we are serving are our neighbors and our friends.”

One of his biggest priorities since assuming the commissioner role, Gardiner said, has been working to make sure the greater North Shore community learns more about the quality of services available through the Setauket Fire District. He said he wants the nearly 150-member fire department’s services and practices to be both easily understandable and interactive with the community.

“We’re working on new policies to make the department even more professional,” he said. “We want to look and act like the first-rate service we are.”