2013 0801 fire marshal truck

Riverhead Town is looking to hire a fire prevention inspector to shoulder some of the workload currently borne by the town’s two fire marshals. The town board on Tuesday authorized advertising the new full-time job, which will pay an annual salary of $50,672.

The fire marshals — whose numbers were reduced from three to two by budget cuts in 2011 — are struggling to keep up with commercial inspection duties, among other things, according to the Riverhead Town fire chiefs council. The town fire chiefs council, critical of the staff cut since it was first proposed by Supervisor Sean Walter in 2010, wrote to the town board on March 1 demanding a meeting, which has not yet taken place.

The supervisor told RiverheadLOCAL on March 22 that “the fire commissioners have come up with a solution” to the town’s inspection needs within its budget constraints: the districts would “waive” their share of false alarm fees, Walter said. The fees would be enough to fund a fire inspector position, he said, though not enough to pay the salary of a third fire marshal, which he put at $70,000 to $80,000 per year.

The entry-level salary for a fire marshal is actually $59,610. The town’s existing fire marshals’ salaries are between $78,000 and $82,000. One fire marshal, David Andruskiewicz, has been in the “fire marshal I” position many years and is on one of the highest steps on the union contract salary scale. The other, Craig Zitek, has the title of chief fire marshal, which is in a different group with a different pay scale under the town’s collective bargaining agreement with the Civil Service Employees Union.

The cost of employee benefits is at least another $20,000 per year.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio says if the fire districts are willing to waive their share of the false alarm fees, the town should use the money to hire a fire marshal rather than an inspector.

“The difference in cost isn’t enough to justify hiring the lesser post,” Giglio said yesterday.

The Riverhead Fire Chiefs Council continues to press for a fire marshal and the town chiefs have now been joined by the Suffolk County Fire Chiefs Council in their demand.

“While an inspector would help — it would certainly help with inspections — an inspector can’t do fire investigations or plans review, can’t respond to hazardous material incidents and won’t be able to provided needed relief to two men in an unworkable situation,” Suffolk County Fire Chiefs Council vice president Chip Bancroft said. “A town the size of Riverhead, with all the commercial development it has, really should have four or five fire marshals,” Bancroft said.

“The town chiefs council wants to see the third fire marshal restored, at a minimum,” Riverhead Fire Chiefs Council president Tom Campanaro said.

Firefighters have complained that the reduced fire marshal staff makes it impossible for the fire marshals to keep up with mandatory inspections of commercial properties, jeopardizing public safety as well as the lives of volunteers called to respond to fires.

There are at least 2,500 commercial properties in the town that by law require annual inspection, Bancroft said. “In a two-man office, they would each have to work 9.96 hours per day — no lunch, no vacations — to get 2,500 inspections done. It’s not practical. And that doesn’t include time they have to spend on fire calls and investigations, or reviewing plans for new commercial construction and subdivisions.”

The fire marshals’ duties are expanding even more, Bancroft noted, thanks to two recently adopted state laws. One requires the installation of carbon monoxide detectors in all commercial establishments and an annual inspection of same. The other law grants the county authority to allow the retail sale of “safe fireworks” at specified times of year. The Suffolk County Legislature is currently considering a bill that would allow retail stores to sell sparklers and similar fireworks during the month of June and part of July, as well as a few weeks before and after New Year’s. The fire marshals will have to inspect all locations where fireworks will be stored and sold, Bancroft said.

That’s exactly the reason the town is looking to hire an inspector, the supervisor said. It will alleviate some of the burden on the fire marshals at no taxpayer expense.

The town began charging fees for false alarms in 2012, pursuant to a code adopted in 2011. It collected $112,000 in false alarm fees in 2013 and $76,140 in 2014, according to Riverhead financial administrator William Rothaar. In the first quarter of 2015, false alarm fee revenue was $27,500, he said. The code requires the town to pay the fire districts responding to false alarms 70 percent of those fees.

The fire marshal’s office also has a budgeted part-time fire inspector position that will be eliminated with the hiring of the full-time inspector. The funding for that position — about $15,000 — will be added to the false alarm fees to fund the new post, which, with benefits, will cost about $70,000.

Giglio thinks the town should “just bite the bullet” and restore the fire marshal position it cut in 2011; she said the cut was a mistake to begin with.

The current chief fire marshal, Craig Zitek, then the junior member of the fire marshal’s staff of three, was one of 13 town employees laid off at the end of 2010. Firefighters lobbied hard against the cut, but to no avail.

A year later, the town’s chief fire marshal quit. Scott Davonski left for employment in the private sector and declined comment on his decision. But the Riverhead Fire Department chief at the time, Nick Luparella, said he saw it coming. Luparella said he warned the town board that the reduction would put too much of a strain on the remaining fire marshals, Davonski and Andruskiewicz.

“Even with three fire marshals it was rough,” Luparella said in 2012. “The workload is huge.”

After Davonski left, the town hired Zitek back, this time in the position of chief fire marshal.

The town board is holding a public hearing May 5 on a code amendment that would remove the revenue-sharing requirement.

When the board acts on the amendment, it may have to do so over the objection of some of the fire districts. The Riverhead Fire District supports the change, Commissioner Edward Carey said last week. But representatives of the other three fire districts in town — Wading River, Manorville and Jamesport — said last week they knew nothing about it.

“First we’re hearing of this is from you,” Jamesport Fire Commissioner Tom Grady told a reporter. Wading River commissioners didn’t know about it either, according to district manager Greg Mikalopoulis.

“We weren’t told,” said Campanaro, a Manorville commissioner. “And we’re not waiving anything,” he said. Campanaro said the district has filed claims for false alarm fees but has never gotten paid for them. “We fax them over and we don’t know what happens after that.”

Rothaar confirmed the only district that’s collected false alarm fees to date has been the Riverhead Fire District. Riverhead receives about $30,000 a year, Riverhead commissioner Carey said.

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