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.
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
“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.’”