Garden City Park fire chiefs aim to grow department’s ranks

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Garden City Park fire chiefs aim to grow department’s ranks
The Garden City Park Fire Department headquarters is seen on Jericho Turnpike in Garden City Park. (Photo by Noah Manskar)

The Garden City Park Fire Department’s new leaders are launching an effort to rebuild the department’s ranks, they said.

Newly elected Chief Augie Carnevale last month activated a Recruitment Committee to develop strategies to grow membership, which is down to 87 firefighters as of last week from about 120 three years ago, he said.

Staffed by department leadership and two representatives from each of the five fire companies, the committee will work to get firefighters more engaged with the community to show potential members that “it’s pretty cool to be a fireman,” Carnevale said.

“We all joined to protect the … community that we live in, and it’s about getting people that live here also to become enthusiastic about their community and try to help out,” Matthew Flood, the department’s first assistant chief, said.

The committee is still in its infancy, but the department plans to do more programs in the New Hyde Park-Garden City Park school district and be present at more community events, Carnevale and Flood said.

Garden City Park is not alone with its membership problems, said Carnevale, a 49-year veteran of the department and a former Garden City Park Fire and Water District commissioner.

The number of volunteer firefighters per 1,000 people in the United States fell about 18.4 percent between 1986 and 2014, according to a report from the National Fire Protection Association.

In Garden City Park, high housing prices force young people to work more, leaving them less time for firefighting, which requires between 70 and 80 hours of training annually, Carnevale and Flood said.

The department last year decreased the minimum number of calls to which firefighters must respond to maintain their membership to help those with little time stay active, Flood said.

Adding to the problem in recent years were department leaders who were overly strict and did not emphasize community connections, lowering morale and hampering membership, Carnevale and Flood said.

“It wasn’t being done the way it used to be,” Carnevale said.

Deep divisions emerged within the fire department last year after Flood was charged with falsifying call attendance records in an administrative disciplinary proceeding. He was suspended from his position as second assistant chief and eventually found guilty of all but a few of the charges.

Carnevale and Flood were elected to their positions in December after Timothy Nacewicz, the previous chief, resigned and Michael Magas, the previous first assistant chief, moved out of the fire district’s territory, meaning he could not hold an office.

Both are still active firefirefighters. Robert Mirabile, who first investigated Flood, is the current captain of the department’s rescue squad.

Carnevale and Flood hope their “lead by example” style will strengthen bonds among firefighters and increase enthusiasm, they said. Firefighters have been gathering at the firehouse in recent weeks, which used  to be a rare sight, they said.

But two current firefighters disputed Flood and Carnevale’s claims that past leaders hurt morale. They requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to reporters and could be dismissed from the department for doing so.

Some members resented the chiefs for enforcing rules and regulations that the department was legally obligated to obey, said one of the firefighters, who previously held a leadership position in the department.

“That wasn’t any new rule that was enacted,” he said. “That was just us following the guidelines that you have to follow as a fire department.”

The department has participated in all the same community events it has in the past decade, and its engagement did not wane under recent leaders, the former leader said.

The former leader said he would like to see membership grow, but he has not seen morale improve since Carnevale and Flood took the helm.

Past chiefs also tried to boost membership and involvement by easing requirements for young firefighters who want to remain active firefighters while they attend college elsewhere, he said.

Increasing morale and membership will not be short processes, Carnevale and Flood said, but they think their work is off to a good start.

“It’s going to be small steps, but any step is a good step,” Flood said.

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