A Port Chester career firefighter is supposed to be on duty at the Rye Brook Firehouse at night. An analysis of fire department attendance charts by Westmore News showed there were 29 dates in 2013 when there was no one on duty there.
A Port Chester career firefighter is supposed to be on duty at the Rye Brook Firehouse at night. An analysis of fire department attendance charts by Westmore News showed there were 29 dates in 2013 when there was no one on duty there.
The Village of Port Chester settled its dispute with six career firefighters-four of whom had been suspended-resulting in the loss of vacation days for two of them and varying lengths of suspension without pay for the others. A Westmore News investigation into the reason for the disciplinary charges, however, revealed a possibly completely different, yet troubling, issue: shifts and even entire days without a paid firefighter on duty.

Port Chester Village Manager Chris Steers refused to go into detail about the charges, stating that it would be unprofessional to do so, but said that questions regarding overtime in March 2013 prompted the initial investigation.

Although overtime occurs in all departments, especially those that are not at the proper staffing level, Steers admitted, it is not supposed to be a regular event. "Overtime is supposed to be a rare occurrence," he said.

"Rarely" is the exact word used to describe how often overtime is needed in the contract between the village and the Port Chester Professional Fire Fighters Association. Barring illness or a major fire or catastrophe, it should not be necessary.

Contractually, a firefighter is supposed to work 40 hours each week. At the end of the two-week pay period ending on Mar. 3, 2013, however, five of the men had racked up 96 hours each, according to attendance charts obtained under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). It is common for firefighters to have one pay period in excess of the expected 80 hours, followed by the next one under that amount. It is not common, based on the attendance charts, for someone to work 96 hours given the way the schedule normally falls, which perhaps is what prompted an in-depth look by the village.

"We started looking into some time discrepancies about a year ago relating to some unauthorized overtime that was taken," Steers said. "During the course of looking at the schedule and looking at really everything else, different issues came to light."

Ignoring the contract

When Westmore News compared the attendance charts during March with other months in 2013, an oddity in scheduling immediately stood out. Rather than 10-hour and 14-hour shifts as outlined in the contract, 24-hour shifts appeared on the books instead.

The schedule the village uses is at least two men on a rotation of three 10-hour day shifts, two days off, three 14-hour night shifts and then four days off before it repeats. Instead, the men were on duty for 24 hours straight then three days off.

Due to various retirements, the village hired three new men in late 2012. Before they could start, they had to attend the Westchester County Career Fire Academy, a 16-week intensive training program. During January when the 24-hour shifts first appeared, the three were still in training and the department was operating with only eight paid firefighters, two of whom were on light duty.

For a fully operational 24-hour shift schedule, 16 firefighters are needed, Steers said. While the concept has been raised in the past, it is not part of the current contract. There is no reason, the village manager added, that Port Chester firefighters would ever be working 24-hour shifts.

"There was no need to change shifts. There was no authorization or need," Steers said. Despite anyone's best intentions, the rules and regulations need to be followed, he added.

Although Richard Korenthal, attorney for the Port Chester Professional Firefighters Association Local 1971, did not return a call for comment on Wednesday, Mar. 12, he previously said that the charges dealt with "scheduling issues that grew out of a severe manpower shortage which the village failed to address."

Steers would not state whether the use of 24-hour shifts-which actually continued for three full weeks after the new hires finished their training-was the reason for the disciplinary charges against six firefighters.

While the trainees were at the academy, however, there were six firefighters-Chad Clouting, Sahnjai Karnsomtob, Brett Lyons, Richard Rozell, Frank Stever and John Suppa, Jr.-who switched to the 24-hour schedule for nine weeks. Rozell, Karnsomtob, Lyons and Stever were the four men the village decided to suspend.

Anthony Stanwicki, who retired in November 2013, and Angelo Sposta did not fully participate in the changed schedule. Both men were on light duty and Sposta continues to be.

In addition to the four suspensions, two more firefighters initially had charges leveled against them by the village, but they were quickly settled by stipulation. Although the village initially retained a hearing officer to help resolve the rest of the situation, ultimately she was not needed. There will still be a late cancelation fee for the one day she had been scheduled.

"I'm always of a mind to discuss things and work them out. The union reached out to me, wanted to sit down and talk," Steers said. After a week, the two groups reached an agreement and everything was settled on Friday, Mar. 7.

One individual accepted a 30-day suspension without pay with a resignation for the purposes of voluntary retirement this July. Three accepted two-week suspensions without pay and the other two forfeited three of their vacation days.

Although not part of the official agreement, Rozell decided to retire and did so effective Thursday, Mar. 6.

"Whether it was related to the charges or not I would say is speculation," Steers said. "His reasons are his own."
The other three suspended firefighters started back on their usual schedules on Friday. Lyons and Stever, the only ones who could be reached, both declined to comment on the situation.

Lack of coverage

During the three months that 24-hour shifts were utilized, there were periods when there was no one on duty either due to vacation, holiday time or personal days. Initially thought to be contained to that time period, a look through the attendance records in 2013 revealed this to be a systemic problem throughout the entire year.

Surprisingly, the contract does not specify that someone must be on duty during each shift, something that might change in future agreements.

"There's no minimum staffing in the contract and that's something that will be discussed during negotiations," Village Attorney Anthony Cerreto said. The contract between the two parties expired in May 2012, but the union didn't approach the village about opening up negotiations until July 2013. Waiting for the union to take the first step is typical, Cerreto added.

"Obviously there is a minimum staffing level operationally. The contract doesn't have that requirement, but both chiefs know what they need to do," Steers said, referring to the fire chief and police chief, as the contract with the police also does not specify a minimum.

"Generally speaking, there's ample amount of volunteers ready to assist," Steers added. "The likelihood of not having the volunteers show up is remote just based on my experience with those individuals."

There are about 200 Port Chester volunteer firefighters. Of those, at least 120 have the necessary training to perform all the varied duties associated with fighting fires, said Port Chester Fire Chief Kevin McMinn.

No one in Rye Brook

Currently, the only time the Professional Fire Fighters Association is contractually obligated to have someone on duty is at night so that one firefighter can man the Rye Brook Firehouse from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. as per the fire service agreement between the two villages that garners Port Chester almost $1 million each year.

Based on the attendance records, in 2013 there were 29 nights when there were no career firefighters on duty at all in either Port Chester or Rye Brook. This is not counting the times when only a light duty firefighter was available who cannot complete all the required tasks. Furthermore, on the nights with only one staffer since he was required in Rye Brook, there was no one in Port Chester. Similarly, there were 25 day shifts last year when there was not a paid firefighter in Port Chester. In total, no one was on duty for 656 hours, or 13% of 2013.

Rye Brook Village Administrator Chris Bradbury said they do not keep track of the Port Chester firefighters although their own employees often see them at the end of the work day or in the morning. "They pass as they change shifts," he said.

On the rare occasion of operational problems like a truck down, someone always called to let Bradbury know, he said.

The administrator said he did not have any complaints about nighttime coverage last year but could not verify their attendance or lack thereof. "I don't have that information. That's something you'd have to get from Port Chester," said Bradbury.

When asked about the lack of coverage based on the attendance charts, Steers said, "I'd have to look at it and verify it."

The time sheets are supposed to be signed off on by the fire chief, Steers said, but McMinn said that he does not handle the charts.

"I really don't have anything to do with them," McMinn said. It is the fire clerk's job to make up the attendance charts. While they do go through McMinn, the fire chief passes them on to the village for payroll purposes.

The fire clerk, a career firefighter who is appointed by the village, performs assigned clerical duties, including the schedule and time sheets, which garners the individual an additional $2,000 stipend. After John Rockey retired in November 2012, no one was appointed as the department clerk to fill his empty shoes. Stever, while not officially designated, filled the position until mid-March when Karnsomtob took over. Steers officially appointed Karnsomtob to the be the clerk in August.

Days-off overlapping

To McMinn's knowledge there is always a professional firefighter on during each shift barring unfortunate circumstances. "The only way I could see that happening is if somebody called in sick at the last minute," he said. In that situation, he added, someone else would be called in to work overtime to fill in.

He did not know why the attendance records stated otherwise.

Occasionally, the records do show that the coverage shortage came about when someone became ill while the other person initially scheduled to work was given time off. Yet, many of the days do not fit that scenario and instead appear to be the result of personal days, holidays and vacations overlapping, which is not supposed to occur.

When it comes to time off, seniority is supposed to take precedence to guarantee there is always somebody on call. "Usually we don't allow two on the same shift taking off," McMinn explained.

What McMinn espoused runs counter to what is in fact shown on the time sheets. According to the attendance chart for May 13-26, both Brett Lyons and John Suppa, Jr. had vacation days listed and consequently no one was down for the night shift. On May 9 and 10, the vacation days for Richard Rozell and John Suppa, Jr. result in nobody available during the day. On Dec. 19 and 21, Vincent Lyons' and Frank Stevers' personal and vacation days, respectively, overlapped leaving the night shift vacant.

Sometimes, it does not appear that the lack of coverage stems from time off but that no one was scheduled for that time in the first place. On Oct. 8, for example, there are two people down for night shifts but nobody on the attendance chart at all for daytime. That same week, Oct. 13, the opposite occurred. While there were two firefighters allotted for day shifts, there were none for the night shift. Furthermore, since the two expected to work during the day ended up taking time off, there was no coverage for a full 24 hours.

Insufficient oversight

In general, the issue with the 24-hour shifts, as well as the apparent lack of consistent coverage, seem to stem from lack of oversight by the village.

"Beyond the settlement of the charges, the situation revealed a number of issues that I believe will be worked out during continuing labor management meetings and contract negotiations," Steers said. "Further, a number of issues also arose about our firefighting forces as a whole and the need for closer monitoring, more cooperation and review of rules, regulations and procedures."

The other similarity between the two is that the dearth of firefighters in the village seemed to play a role, which could change soon.

"My goal starting through this process is to try and get staffing levels back up to 12 firefighters. That's going to be a difficult task as I'm looking at these budget numbers," the village manager said.

Especially since the number has dropped to nine with another expecting to retire in July, he feels it is important to pursue and hopes to hire two additional firefighters.

"I'm of the position if we're going to have a paid department, it needs to be properly staffed. It needs to have the proper equipment," Steers said. "It needs to be run in a professional manner."