Westmore News file photo
Westmore News file photo
For months, unbeknownst to most residents, personnel problems have been smoldering in the Port Chester Fire Department. A year-long investigation has resulted in disciplinary charges against eight out of the 10 paid firefighters with four of the individuals having been suspended.

Charges against two of the career firefighters have been settled by stipulation, said Village Manager Chris Steers Wednesday, so six still have charges pending.

Attempts to learn about what the charges are and who they were filed against were met with the same written response from Steers: "I cannot comment on the specifics. It would not be fair. There is no intent to taint any of the individuals involved and they have a right to defend themselves."

Due to retirements and injuries, only eight of the 10 career firefighters are on full duty. With four suspensions, as few as four full-duty and two limited-duty paid men are staffing Port Chester fire headquarters and continuing the village's contractual obligation to maintain one paid firefighter at the Rye Brook firehouse from 7 p. m. to 7 a. m. daily.

"They are still getting 100%--the same response and same units of equipment and individuals," promised Steers, who noted that the Village of Rye Brook is aware of the situation.

To pick up the slack, "the remaining paid firefighters have stepped up," said the manager. "I commend them on their continued commitment and professionalism as we work through these issues." In addition, "as we well know, our volunteers are the linchpin of our firefighting force," he continued. "They have stepped up as they always do and their focus remains on protecting the welfare of this community. My appreciation goes out to the chiefs and the entire group as they once again come through for the village."

Rye Brook Village Administrator Chris Bradbury did not have concerns. "We have the same level of service at our firehouse," he said Wednesday. "Port Chester is still serving us in the same way they have before."

The 12-month investigation has been kept under wraps until a discussion at the Feb. 3 Port Chester Board of Trustees meeting about hiring a hearing officer led to questions being asked by Westmore News.

That discussion continued in closed session on Feb. 12 after which the five board members present voted to retain Deborah A. Shapiro, LLC of New York City as a hearing officer at $1,100 per day plus travel expenses.

The village previously used Shapiro for two matters in the Department of Public Works and paid her $900 per day. Since then her fees have gone up.

Trustee Sam Terenzi, a CPA, joked that he was in the wrong business while Village Attorney Anthony Cerreto said "in my next life, I'm going to come back as a hearing officer."

At the Feb. 3 meeting, Cerreto said "a hearing lasts a week."

Assuming there are six hearings for the individuals who have charges pending and each takes five days, they could go on for a month and a half and cost the village $33,000.

The first hearing will be held "as early as next week depending on the availability of the opposing counsel," said Steers.

The goal of the hearings is "due process and the resolution of the charges in some constructive manner," said the manager.

Once the hearings are complete, the independent hearing officer renders a decision and the village either accepts that decision and its recommendations or follows another path. "It is highly unlikely that any action would be taken in contravention of the hearing officer's decision and recommendations," said Steers.

Following the year-long investigation, "all necessary preparations have been made prior to the charges being filed," the manager said. "We have the commitment from our volunteer forces and full faith and confidence in them to perform their duties as valiantly and professionally as they always have." This investigation of the fire
department comes on the heels of the upheaval and reorganization of three other Port Chester departments- Public Works, Building and Police-in recent years.

Port Chester Mayor Neil Pagano did not return phone calls placed late Wednesday night for comment. Neither did Brett Lyons, president of the Port Chester Professional Firefighters Association.