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Comprehensive Plan member: Staffing for Police, Fire and EMS departments is at risk

The Comprehensive Plan Task Force and Comp Plan Advisory Committee (CPAC) completed review of two chapters in the proposed plan last week.

Key among concerns for CPAC member Sean Clark in Chapter 9, dealing with Quality of Life issues, is the need to pay attention to public safety issues. He was particularly concerned about staffing of the Police Department, Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services.

A municipality’s Comprehensive Plan dictates policy on multiple fronts, including development, land use, transportation and housing. In 1994, a Comprehensive Plan was adopted by a Town Board resolution. A seven-month effort of discussion and research in 2008 produced an update to that plan, but the board rejected it.

Mr. Clark is a Shelter Island Police Officer and he noted Chief Jim Read is always looking ahead for staffing and other requirements. But the Comp Plan draft doesn’t reflect that need, as circumstances change. The need to adapt is addressed by Chief Read and the Town Board throughout the year, but especially at budget time, Mr. Clark said.

Marine Corps veteran and current Shelter Island Police Officer Sean Clark. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

He also noted the requirement to hire only town residents as police officers has to be waived because there simply aren’t enough candidates to fill positions. There are times when the department has only a single officer able to respond to calls, Mr. Clark said. “It’s a significant risk” to have a single officer available with responses having to be delayed, he added.

It’s more complex for the volunteer Fire Department and EMS teams. Mr. Clark said it’s critical for the Comp Plan to look ahead and envision a day when both might have to become paid operations.

Along with many, older current members who have had to scale back some of their efforts, fewer young volunteers are able to join either or both departments. Many are hampered by off-Island jobs and stepped-up training requirements that conflict with their ability to serve.

Aside from answering fire calls on the Island, older Fire Department members speak of on-the-job training when they were beginning to volunteer. Today’s firefighters have required training, which means trips in Yaphank, and sometimes other venues, for training programs at night. That further complicates the ability of many younger members to join the ranks.

The EMS operation has already had a taste of what paid personnel can cost. When Phil Power retired in 2021 as the last volunteer to administer advanced life support services, the town had to allocate money to pay for trained paramedics. The original cost was $235,000 to cover 12-hours per day. The cost was split between the town and the Southampton Hospital Foundation.

After EMS Director Jack Thilberg looked at data, he told the Town Board during budget workshops for the current year that the need for staffing requires 24-hour coverage. Almost half the calls come in overnight, in hours previously uncovered, he said.

Other Comp Plan concerns

Lighting in the town was discussed, with too much lighting in some areas that fail to adhere to the town’s dark skies legislation, and a lack of lighting in areas of the Center where pedestrians can’t be seen crossing streets.

Other issues with the Chapter 9 draft include:

• Failure to address requirements of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration that could result in liability for the town.

• An inconsistency in addressing issues affecting Sylvester Manor with those of other areas, including Mashomack Preserve.

• References to the American Legion Post, which appeared in an earlier draft, should be restored to the Comp Plan.

Moving ahead to issues in Chapter 10 — Utilities, Sustainability and Resilience — Councilwoman Meg Larsen, a Task Force leader, told CPAC members about a Department of Energy grant. The Energy Transitions Initiative Partnership Project is providing a study of the Island’s energy systems to increase energy resilience and independence. The grant provides support from national labs to analyze and plan for reliable energy.

Related to the issue is debate among Islanders about maintaining the current ban on the use of geothermal energy. Some encourage a re-evaluation, while others want to continue to block its use.

With the pending application from the Gardiner’s Bay Country Club to double its water use, there was a call for including a restriction in the Comp Plan that would prohibit any golf course from taking a natural resource for private use.

Several other concerns were noted:

• More emphasis on water quality throughout the Island.

• The lack of alternatives for internet connections other than Optimum.

• A desire for faster recharging stations for electric vehicles, including electric bikes.

On Tuesday, Feb. 20, the Comp Plan Task Force and CPAC are set to move on the final chapter in the draft.