By Maylan L. Studart
The Garden City Park Fire Department has severely curtailed emergency responses from one of the district’s two firehouses during school hours, according to a former chief.
Under certain circumstances, fire district commissioners said, the district’s centrally located Station 2 at 1030 Denton Ave. has not been allowed to respond to emergencies on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on the orders of Chief of Department Timothy Nacewicz.
Instead, volunteers must drive their cars to fire district headquarters at 2264 Jericho Turnpike in the southern part of the district to respond to the emergency call from there.
The former chief of department, Augie Carnevale, complained about the reduced emergency response last Thursday at a meeting of the Garden City Park Water and Fire District Board of Commissioners, describing Station 2 as inactive.
A full room of about 20 residents bombarded the commissioners with questions and expressed concerns for their safety.
“What if my house burned down?” resident Nina Bitsko asked.
The board defended Nacewitz, who was not present at the meeting, saying a lack of manpower forced him to make changes. The board said fire operations are a personnel matter and the public does not need to be notified of such changes.
Some residents said they had learned about the local firehouse’s limited response from neighbors.
About 70 people in the Garden City Park Water and Fire District are volunteer firefighters who can respond to a number of different emergencies from electrical fires to heart attacks. That is down from 120 five years ago.
In an email response to questions after the meeting, Nacewitz said the volunteer fire services in Nassau and Suffolk counties have been experiencing severe manpower shortages and response delays during daytime hours and said his decision to centralize the response at headquarters was due to a lack of manpower.
“Many volunteer fire departments have addressed this concern by consolidating manpower during daytime hours,” Nacewitz wrote. “One such solution, which we have modeled after and adopted as our own, is mandating that all qualified members respond to one firehouse where most apparatus and equipment are located.”
Garden City Fire District’s Station 2 has two fire engines and one ambulance, with the only difference from headquarters being the lack of a ladder truck with heavy rescue capabilities, according to people familiar with the matter.
Residents were confused as to how often Station 2 was being used. Most of them thought it was closed while some thought it was inactive during certain hours, but the board and Second Assistant Chief Roland Sarracco were adamant in saying that the station is operating at all times.
“It’s not closed and under certain circumstances, there can be a response out of that station,” Sarracco said.
The circumstances are a new response policy begun in October that requires that three volunteer firefighters and a chauffeur be present at Station 2 for there to be a response, which doesn’t happen often according to people familiar with the matter. Otherwise, officers must drive their own cars with their response equipment in the trunk to district headquarters 1.3 miles south.
The ambulance at the station is also not allowed to respond to calls during the same hours unless a chauffeur and a medical technician are both present. If not, volunteers must report to headquarters first to respond to the call even if the call is coming from the northern part of the district.
Ginger Reime, a teacher’s aide for the Herricks School District only found out two days before the meeting that the firehouse that responds to emergencies in some of the district’s schools would not operate in many emergencies during school hours.
“If the schools call, you’ll respond?” Reime asked Sarracco. “Because I don’t think we’re aware of this.” Sarracco went on to say firefighters are aware of the new policy response procedure.
Under the policy, if an emergency situation were to occur between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. at the Denton Avenue School, Herricks High School or the four other schools the fire district covers, volunteers present at Station 2 must drive 1.3 miles south through one stop sign and five traffic lights to make it to headquarters, to then respond to the emergency. That’s a five-to-10-minute drive to headquarters depending on traffic. The same scenario would occur in any emergency response in the northern part of the district.
A resident in his late 50s said he was confounded as to why a centrally located firehouse like Station 2 would be limited in operations.
“When you have a firehouse sitting in the middle of the district, why would you pick a firehouse that’s further away?” he said.
In the case of ambulance responses, due to nearly all fire district personnel working on a volunteer basis, there are times no EMS volunteer is available in the district to respond to an emergency. In this case, neighboring districts respond to the call through a system of mutual aid under which Nassau County can respond as well, which takes longer.
Answering emergency responses quickly has been Carnevale’s concern for years. He requested that the board hire a paid medic to be on standby at the station when he was chief of department in 2017 so medical emergencies could be tended to more quickly.
“In 2018 I believe you guys said you were going to go for it,” said Carnevale. “It’s 2019. The ambulance doesn’t get out. When are we getting a medic?”
Carnevale said when minutes make the difference between life or death, the board should have hired a paid EMS a long time ago to be on call.
“This is an emergency situation we’re talking about,” said Carnevale. “You’re supposed to protect the district, the people living in it.”
Kenneth Borchers, one of three commissioners that make up the board of the Garden City Park Water and Fire District, said they didn’t approve Carnevale’s request in 2017. “It was discussed and it’s going through the motions now that we are getting a medic,” said Borchers.
Water Superintendent Michael Levy said the appropriate people were in the process of researching a coordinator, setting policies and procedures, getting civil service approvals and other requirements necessary to submit a plan for approval by the board.
Commissioner Chris Engel said despite ongoing requests for a paid medic, getting the paperwork done to bring one on board takes time.
Levy said: “It is budgeted for this year. We are hopeful that shortly within four to five months that we have a medic on staff.”
Former Garden City Park Fire Department assistant chief and construction safety officer Matt Flood said: “It’s been brought up for two years prior to Chief Carnevale and the exact words from the Board of Commissioners were ‘We’re going to investigate and inspect with New Hyde Park.’ You’ve had two, three, four, going on five years to investigate this.”
“That’s not accurate,” Engel said.
“It is accurate, call the minutes,” said Flood. “You’re lying to the public.”
“That’s your opinion,” Engel said.
Without a paid EMS on call at the Garden City Park district, the two ambulances are mostly inactive during school hours unless a volunteer is available to respond to headquarters.
The commissioners told the public the main problem with emergency responses is fewer shift workers and volunteers because they work during the day and may not always be available to respond to calls.
“It’s not a cost-saving problem, but a manpower problem,” said Engel.
According to Deputy County Fire Coordinator for the Nassau County Fire Service Michael Uttaro, fewer than 10,000 county residents are firefighters and EMS volunteers who cover a population of 1.4 million. That’s a ratio of one emergency volunteer per 140 residents.
Nina Bitsko said if the problem is finding volunteers, the department should make it easier for them to operate. She said firefighter volunteers like her son need extra gas to drive extra miles and make an extra effort to perform their duties.
“You’re saying it’s hard to volunteer. Let’s keep track of this and help the volunteer,” Bitsko said.
Uttaro, who is also an assistant chief fire marshal, said chiefs have the final call to make decisions as they wish and each of the 71 fire departments in Nassau County can operate differently due to the circumstances of their communities.
In his email, Nacewicz said: “First and foremost, substation #2 … is not and has never been ‘closed.’ If at any time qualified firefighters or medical personnel as per our written policy, are present in substation #2 at the time of an alarm, those members will respond to that alarm using apparatus from that building.”