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04/21/17 4:30pm
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO New Shelter Island Fire Department Chief Anthony Reiter at the Center firehouse.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO New Shelter Island Fire Department Chief Anthony Reiter at the Center firehouse.

The nephew, son, and grandson of volunteer firemen, when Anthony Reiter is sworn in as chief of the Shelter Island Fire Department on April 24 it will be a proud moment.

Anthony’s proudest moment as a firefighter came a little over two years ago, when on March 14, 2015, a fire broke out around 11:30 p.m. at Southold’s First Universalist Church. “We were the knights in shining armor for that one,” he said. “I called the Southold chief and said ‘I’ve got a full crew ready to go.’ She said, ‘Get your butts over here.’” (more…)

09/24/13 1:30pm

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Fire Commission Chairman Andy Steinmuller said Monday night that holding the line on taxes hinges on two significant changes.

If the preliminary 2014 budget Shelter Island Fire Commissioners approved Monday is adopted, town taxpayers will see a decrease in their assessments.

The tax base on the Island has grown, so the bill be split among more property owners, according to Fire District Treasurer Amber Williams.

Commissioners are looking at increasing spending by $2,854, bringing total appropriations in 2014 to $834,040. But the tax rate would drop from .2755 percent to .2741 percent, Ms. Williams said.

Critical to holding the line on taxes are two significant changes that could still occur, according to Commission Chairman Andy Steinmuller; the department’s three fire chiefs have requested changes in two key positions, the district secretary and the houseman.
With current Commission Secretary Jackie Tuttle retiring early next year, the chiefs suggested last month — and reiterated their call this week — for an administrator who would tackle some of the record keeping work Chief John D’Amato has done. The chief has pointed out that some of the work he’s done is the responsibility of the commissioners and their secretary. And he’s pointed out that while he’s retired and has been able to tackle the paperwork, chiefs coming up behind him are younger, full-time workers who would be unable to take on the amount of record-keeping required.

Commissioner Larry Lechmanski said it would likely be possible to add some new responsibilities to the secretary’s role without increasing the overall budget.

Mr. Steinmuller said a decision on the request to hire a professional houseman to replace two part-time workers — Jackie Capon and Linda Steinmuller, daughter of the commission chairman — would be made only after commissioners decide on the secretary’s responsibilities.

GOOD NEWS
On the good news side of the  ledger is Chief D’Amato said the district’s Insurance Services Office rating has been raised as a result of efforts undertaken in the past few years to increase training of members. The department is now rated as a Class 8B recognizing “a superior level of fire protection.” What’s keeping the department from achieving a Class 9 is the ISO dropped it because of what is judged to be a lack of a water supply system capable of producing a minimum 250 gallons per minute for two hours. But the department is protesting that finding, Chief D’Amato said.

While there’s no guarantee that individual companies will follow through, the improved rating could qualify Island homeowners for a reduction in their insurance rates. The chief said he’s proud of the improved rating, pointing to the fact that more department members have been participating in more training sessions and that improved record-keeping has enabled that fact to be tracked.

As for the water supply, the district has been pro-active in adding tanks in areas where wells weren’t providing sufficient water and is currently engaged in determining whether a proposed new well at Midway and Sleepy Hollow would render enough water or the department would be better served by installing a tank in that area.

First Assistant Chief Will Anderson presented a single quote to the commissioners Monday night, but was charged with getting at least two other quotes before moving forward with a project to test the probability of a water supply at the Midway and Sleepy Hollow site. The aim is get water pumping from that site at the rate of 350 gallons per minute, the first assistant chief said.

SAFETY FIRST
Commissioners are still exploring an attempt to get the department up to speed with Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. An original proposal that would cost the district about $10,000 prompted an effort to get training for less money. But Chief D’Amato told commissioners Monday night that one individual who offered a lower quote wanted to be paid cash and not have it reported to the government on a 1099 tax form. Such spending is illegal.

Mr. Lechmanski said he would explore further an effort to undercut that $10,000 cost and would report back next month. Districts failing to comply with OSHA regulations could be fined, making it critical that Shelter Island demonstrate an effort to comply as soon as possible, the chief has said.

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09/09/13 1:00pm

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Looking over new procedures are Shelter Island Fire Chief John D’Amato (front) and Fire District Commission Chairman Andy Steinmuller.

Because of perceived, and sometimes real, friction between the fire department and the fire commissioners, Chief John D’Amato and Fire Commission Chairman Andy Steinmuller met with the Reporter last week to clear up some misconceptions.

You know when a fire alarm sounds on Shelter Island, those men and women who respond are your volunteer firefighters. But who are the others you read about who sometimes seem at odds with the fire department ­— fire commissioners — who may or may not be firefighters? They seem to have a lot to say about how the department functions, but who gives them that right?

You do.

That is, you do if you vote in fire district elections typically held in December.

What Chief D’Amato and Chairman Andy Steinmuller want you to know is there might be differences of opinion at times, but they’re both on the same side.

“It’s not an adversarial relationship,” Chief D’Amato said. But there is “push-pull” between the two because it’s up to the department’s three chiefs to request money for equipment and up to the commissioners to decide what the district can afford.

Where does the money come from? Taxpayers, said Mr. Steinmuller, explaining that commissioners adopt an annual budget, a process currently under way for 2014. The district commissioners are obligated to track how money is being used and when it can be moved from one account to another.

What does it cost the taxpayer annually? Surprisingly little, according to District Treasurer Amber Williams. If your house is assessed at $640,000, you’re paying $176 for fire fighting services.

“We’re controlled by the state,” Mr. Steinmuller said about the procedures the commissioners must meet in budgeting. “And every year, they come up with a new requirement.”

It’s similar to how school districts must comply with state and federal mandates affecting curriculum and procedures, but often aren’t given enough money to cover the costs of such compliance, Mr. Steinmuller said. Fire District commissioners must figure out how to juggle the tax money they receive to ensure they’re complying with mandates pertaining to training and equipment, among other expenses.

If the chiefs sometimes seem frustrated in their efforts to get equipment they believe is vital to their operations, it’s not because the commissioners fail to understand the need. It’s because they simply don’t have the funds, Mr. Steinmuller said.

One cause of friction concerns the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. When OSHA laid down requirements to protect firefighters, all agreed compliance was important. But the cost of reviewing the department’s procedures and equipment and training members in those procedures could cost $10,000 or more. When commissioners heard there might be someone local who could do the job for $500, they naturally jumped at the lower figure, but have since had problems slotting in the consultant to do the job by the December 31 deadline.

Chiefs were cynical from the start that the job could be done for so little money. Now all parties are scrambling to find a way to bring the department into compliance.

That’s what prompted Chief D’Amato to complain there’s not a written contract with the person who was to do OSHA training and evaluation. The days of handshake contracts are over, the chief said. By state law, when a bid is awarded, a written agreement must establish start and finish dates for each project and stipulate other elements that must be met by the winning contractor. It’s that written contract that protects both the district and the contractor’s interests, Chief D’Amato said.

Mr. Steinmuller agreed that going forward, such contracts would be put in place.

Another question is money the department raises from events like its Chicken Barbecue and Country Fair. Some of that may go to offsetting the costs of equipment, typically paid for by the commissioners with tax money. But mainly the money from events goes back to the community through scholarships, a program to offset the costs of heating oil, and signs needed to ensure firefighters can find houses when an alarm sounds.

A tiny amount is spent to provide some meals for firefighters. By law, the district can provide only water for firefighters on the job “so we don’t die of thirst,” Chief D’Amato said. But if it’s a lengthy fire, the district can’t pay for food, so that comes out of department money — a small price to pay for the volunteers, the chief said.

“We’re not a rich district here,” Mr. Steinmuller said. With the 2 percent cap on tax increases imposed by New York State, it’s hard to cover increasing expenses, he added.

“Everybody in that room is a taxpayer,” Chief D’Amato said, meaning everyone wants to keep spending in check.

Both the fire district and fire department have their own sets of policies. But it’s up to the commissioners to create the over-arching policies that inform how both function.

“We’re constantly trying to update and stay with the current knowledge,” Chief D’Amato said about requests he and the other chiefs make to the district commissioners. “Fire service, like the rest of the world, is changing and there’s always a tug and pull between the old guard and new procedures,” he said.

“John has opened up our eyes a lot of times on certain things,” Mr. Steinmuller said.

07/23/13 9:18am

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | The fire department said Monday night that for certain areas of the Island, residents who don’t follow instructions in an emergency are on their own.

If you live on Ram Island or in Silver Beach and are warned prior to or during a storm to evacuate, follow that advice.

The word came Monday night from Shelter Island Fire Commissioners and chiefs of the department who rejected purchasing a vehicle that could traverse high water.

Even though the vehicle could get through roadways submerged under some water, Chief John D’Amato said he wouldn’t send his department members across because what starts as a drop of few feet could easily become 30 feet. He said he wouldn’t send vehicles farther than where he could view the tarmac under the water.

“We’re not willing to put guys’ lives at stake,” Second Assistant Chief Greg Sulahian said.

Commissioner Larry Lechmanski repeated the warnings New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gave residents of outlying areas during Hurricane Sandy when he told residents if they failed to respond to evacuation warnings, they would be on their own.