GARDINER — Two and half months after funding for four additional firefighter positions was approved, the Gardiner Fire Department has filled two of them.
But in the wake of a fire in Gardiner at the end of August, some elected officials are concerned that that’s not enough.
On that day, Gardiner firefighters, who are also paramedics or emergency medical technicians, were out on rescue calls when the fire call came in, and firefighters from other communities were dispatched. The response time to that fire was just less than seven minutes.
In a brief update to the Gardiner City Council on Wednesday, Gardiner Fire Chief Richard Sieberg said he has hired three firefighters — one to replace a firefighter who left the department — and expects to interview two more candidates by the end of the month.
The additions are at the core of a proposal that Sieberg made to elected officials in Gardiner and seven other communities during budget season to be able to improve service and shorten response time for the Gardiner Fire Department and the Gardiner Ambulance by adding a firefighter to each shift.
The ambulance service, which is staffed by Gardiner’s firefighters and supported financially by the eight communities it covers, serves more than 25,000 people in an area of about 173 square miles.
With the number of calls for service, the Gardiner Fire Department is often empty.
“Today is a perfect example,” Sieberg said. “We’re already 10 rescue calls deep. Each time one truck’s gone out the other was right behind it.”
At the August fire, an off-duty Gardiner firefighter responded with a truck. At the same time, firefighters from a half-dozen other communities responded via mutual aid.
“We’ve talked about this right along, and we know it’s an issue,” At-large City Councilor Tim Cusick said. “We (were) very fortunate (on) that day (that) one of the towns was having a function at its fire station so there were people there (to respond).”
But, he said, even if more firefighters are hired to staff a third ambulance, that might also leave the fire station empty.
“Luckily, things worked out, but one of these days they are not going to work out,” Cusick, who has served as deputy fire chief in Farmingdale, said. “We have two engines and a ladder and no one to drive them when the ambulances are out.”
Sieberg said in the 25 years since he joined the Gardiner Fire Department, the fire service has changed. Then, volunteer fire service was robust and firefighters were required to live within a certain distance of Gardiner.
Now, he said, volunteer services struggle to attract firefighters who can respond during the day, and many professional firefighters have second jobs.
Even so, mutual aid agreements among communities bring firefighters from multiple communities to respond to fires and accidents.
“It really comes down to the conversation about a dedicated fire service,” Andrew Carlton, Gardiner city manager, said. “If feels like we’re planning for what ifs. What ifs do happen.”
Sieberg said he thinks the smartest way to approach the issue is regionalizing the fire service.
“To me it seems like a logical approach, but I am just one guy, and getting everyone to the table is the tricky part,” he said.
Mayor Patricia Hart said the regional ambulance model has been shown to work and has benefitted all its member communities.
“We’ll just have to keep thinking about a way to move forward with future regionalization, maybe, maybe not,” Hart said.
In the meantime, Sieberg said the firefighters and candidates are all at different stages of training, with some working toward completing training to be paramedics, and some requiring some firefighting training.
The emergency medical tech training takes longer, he said.