Under Fire from Volunteers, Council Schedules Listening Session

Chief complaint revolves around new titles


The Central Firehouse is one of the city owned buildings that would get rooftop solar panels.

By Regina Clarkin

In an example of ‘meeting people where they’re at’, the Peekskill Common Council is going to the Central Fire House on Main Street next Thursday, October 14th  at 7 pm for a special meeting to discuss the new paid position of Fire Chief. The public is welcome. 

Members of the Common Council decided at their Committee of the Whole work session on Monday to conduct the meeting in order to hear from Peekskill’s volunteer firefighter community before setting a date for a public hearing. The public hearing is required to amend the city charter creating the new position. 

Since March when a city-commissioned report recommended that a Fire Chief position be created to manage the day-to-day operations of the 24 paid firefighters and the 20 active volunteers, the subject has been a source of consternation for the volunteer firefighting community. The  responsibilities of the new chief would be to create and implement a strategy to boost volunteerism that has declined over the years, hold all staff accountable to the highest standards of training and conduct, ensure that all training certification is in compliance, address any divisions between paid and volunteer firefighters and advocate for the department’s best interests.  One of the sticking points involves language. To date, the role of Fire Chief in Peekskill has been filled by volunteer firefighters. Under the new proposed system, the current volunteer chiefs would have a title change, becoming first, second and third assistants reporting to the new chief.  

A supporter of the Peekskill Fire Department wearing their shirt at the Bean Runner Cafe.

By changing the city code to include the new position, Civil Service law requires that the city hire from a list of qualified candidates when that list is available early next year. If the city hires someone before Dec. 31 they do not have to use the list to select the candidate. When Corporation Council Melissa Ferraro detailed the changes to the council members there was quite a bit of discussion around the tight time frame.  

Councilman Dwight Douglas expressed that he felt like the whole process was a bit rushed. “It’s troublesome the way civil service works, undercutting what should be more open time into the new year. It’s not a good thing that we move it along so we can have an open window for selection of the chief.  I know the timetable we’re working against is real, but it is not good. There are things to digest and I think there’s a lot of respect we need to show to our volunteers; that we have really sought them out. It feels like there’s an extra step needed, even though there were efforts to have meetings. We should invite the volunteers, chiefs and trustees and walk them through just what was presented to us now and get feedback,” said Douglas. 

Councilwoman Kathie Talbot echoed Douglas: “My concern is that there are still quite a bit of unresolved feelings around this and the city should make one more attempt to just talk it through to resolve some of that before we move forward.” 

Douglas suggested an informal meeting before the public hearing: “I know so much work and blood sweat and tears has gone into this, but, this is a big deal to some people. There’s the emotion and actual logic discussion but you’re not getting to the guts and what people are worried about. I would think there definitely should be a meeting in the fire house, that shows a bit of respect, that people were heard. We’re stepping into a piece of history and making a very major change.” He suggested “a certain graciousness” is needed.

Referring to how this is a ‘big deal,”  Talbot said the important thing to remember is the long history the volunteers have. “They’ve been running the fire department, putting out fires and dying in the process. I don’t mean that to be dramatic, but that’s the fact with the Fleischmann fire. They live that as if it happened yesterday. The volunteers have run the department for 150 years without pay or career or civil service,” said Talbot. Seven firefighters lost their lives in 1914 fighting a fire at the Fleischmann’s factory on Charles Point.   

One of the proposed changes involves the command structure of the department that could use some input from volunteers said Corporation Counsel Ferraro. The new structure would be Chief, First Assistant, Second Assistant, Third Assistant, Deputy Chief and then a career Lieutenant.