Thursday’s fire house meeting punctuated by Bear Mountain Parkway crash 

Career and volunteer firefighters united in their dedication 


Photo taken by Peekskill Volunteer Ambulance Corps via Facebook

By Regina Clarkin

Opinions and emotions took a back seat to duty and responsibility at Thursday’s special Common Council meeting at the Central Firehouse Thursday night when the dispatcher call came in with a collision on the Bear Mt. parkway and the room emptied. It was a stark illustration of the critical nature of Peekskill’s emergency services as nearly every volunteer left the meeting to respond to the call. 

The meeting was scheduled by the city to hear from volunteers about proposed changes to the city’s charter and code that will see the hiring of a full time paid fire chief who has jurisdiction over the 24 career firefighters and the roughly 20 active volunteers. City Manager Andy Stewart gave a Powerpoint presentation with the rationale for the change. As the city grows there is a need for more recruitment of volunteers – who have provided the backbone of Peekskill’s fire department for 195 years. There is a need for daily supervision of career firefighters as well as oversight regarding compliance with regulations, as well as the need to create unity between the career and volunteer firefighters. 

Volunteers who have been with the department for decades spoke of the history with the city and the need for better communication. “I have concerns,” said Dominick DiPierro, who has been a member of the Fire Department for 49 years. He suggested that a position of administrator had been talked about with the city over the years. The administrator would manage the scheduling and training and recruiting of volunteers. “Transforming administrator to chief is overkill or overreach of power. It feels like a rush,” said DiPierro. 

Volunteer Trustee Bob Washburn said he was worried the chain of command that has worked in the department for 195 years will be eliminated and the trustees will no longer have responsibility as the governing body. He said he was concerned that a chief could request a volunteer to take a physical at will or eliminate a volunteer due to age. He cited the statistic that 54 percent of the paid career firefighters are from the ranks of the volunteers. “Peekskill has been a robust family type of organization.” 

Michelle Keller said there is a need for a professional chief. “Peekskill is changing.  The chief needs knowledge of the system and to be the face of the agency to the public and to maintain the unique relationship with the unions and volunteers.”

If the blue lights flashing in the building with the calls from the dispatcher coming in weren’t enough to bring the reality of firefighting into focus, then the statistics were.  Patrick Neville, a retired NYC firefighter and co-owner of Whiskey River on Division Street recited how firefighting has changed in the past 30 years. He quoted from National Fire Protection Association standards that shows cooking is the top cause of fires. And home fires caused the majority of all civilian deaths. He detailed how fires burn hotter now than they did in the 1980’s because of the amount of plastic materials in people’s homes and that with hotter fires and more smoke the time to exit a fire without injuries has dropped from 8 minutes to 2 minutes.  He noted that between 2015 and 2019, 69 percent of fires were in one or two family homes – and those type of homes account for 85 percent of deaths. “Peekskill has many one and two family homes,” He acknowledged that volunteer retention is a tough issue, especially because of the higher level of training now required. He also told council members of the need for building inspections. “We are one fire away from being national news here.” 

Career firefighter Gary Horn who is the president of the firefighter’s union spoke in favor of the full time paid chief position and said the conversation about this started in 2018. Since then he has been to about 30 meetings on the subject. “This is not a new thing; this department needs to move forward” 

There were comments from other residents like Lee Esther Brown who remembers when children were running around playing firemen with fire hats on and now they are chiefs in the department. “I’m sad to see the division between the volunteers and career people. The fire department is the fabric of the community. Can’t you work this out?” Another resident, Debra Tompkins, said she was in support of a full time chief. 

Councilwoman Patricia Rielly spoke passionately about the volunteer department, recalling her father’s membership in it, and how she became aware of divisions between the paid and volunteers when she was elected to the council in 2008.  When she queried her father about it, he told her it had been like that for a long time. “We need to work together, we’re friends and family. This is a small city.” She said the new firehouse was an acknowledgment of the gratitude the city had for the firefighting community. 

New resident Nicola Demarco spoke about the feeling of safety he had when moving to Peekskill, and that the new firehouse is a symbol of that. 

Council members voted in favor of scheduling the public hearing on charter and code changes for October 25 at City Hall at 7:30 pm, where there will still be a chance for additional comments from the public.