In a bittersweet celebration with retirees and current members of the City of Newburgh Fire Department at the Warehouse on Liberty Street, Terry Ahlers toasted the end of an era. Last Thursday, Ahlers officially stepped down from his position as acting fire chief. In an effort to save at least one person from the controversial layoff list, Ahlers gave up his position.
“I’m happy I did it [retire] because it brings a guy back to work,” said Ahlers. “It brings a couple of demotions back to where they were last week. I’m happy about that, I’m sad to be leaving on what feels like is someone else’s terms.” Ahlers initially had plans to retire in the Spring, but with the layoff list decided to step down earlier.
William Horton has stepped up as Ahlers’ replacement. Pending civil service exam results next month, Horton has been appointed fire chief. The appointment was effective on January 3.
“It’s only been a few hours [since I’ve been officially appointed],” said Horton last Friday morning in his office. “It’s been good. I’ve been meeting with the officers, several of the city officials. There’s a lot to do, and now’s the time to do it.”
Horton would like to address apparatus issues, staffing issues, and issues with the conditions of fire department facilities.
Horton also hopes to facilitate a positive relationship between the unions and the city. “I think it’s very important we have a contract,” said Horton. “So that we can utilize the firefighters in any means possible for what’s going on here in the city.”
“I hope to have a significant impact in facilitating the conversations with a collective bargaining agreement.”
Horton is a Newburgh native, and has been part of the fire department since 2003. Before joining the fire department, he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics from the University of Buffalo, a Master’s Degree in Public Administration and Emergency Management from John Jay University. In addition, Horton is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program of the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland. In many ways, his current position is a culmination of years of study.
Taking on a position that has been empty for years, Horton is giving back to his community and his past. He is continuing a long family legacy of city firefighters.
“It [an interest in being a firefighter] is something that I grew up with and that I am very passionate about,” said Horton. “I started off after college as a paramedic, and moved to the fire department. And here I am.”
Horton is not only taking on a long empty position; he is also taking on a position in a department that is dealing with layoffs that may be detrimental to the future of the city as a whole.
“We’re down 14 men at this time,” said Horton. “I’ll be working with the city to press upon them that we need to bring these guys back to ensure we have a full staff.”
Last Thursday, Ahlers expressed disappointment over the layoffs and leaving the department. With his retirement, Ahlers has saved the job of Spanish-speaking firefighter Max Carrero.
“He worked with 23 guys on a shift,” said Ahlers referring to one firefighter retiree. “They went down to seven,” said Ahlers referring to another retiree. “From 23 [firefighters] in the 60’s, in the 80’s down to seven. Before these layoffs we were up to 13 guys, and after these layoffs we’re down to ten guys on a shift.”
“Almost back to the way it was in the 80s,” interjected one retiree.
To an extent, consequences of understaffing have already physically materialized. On New Year’s morning, a second alarm fire broke out in a vacant residential building on Parmenter Street. The incident left City of Newburgh Fire Department Lt. Luqman Muhammad injured.
“There was so much damage to the top floor [of the building] it was difficult to ascertain [any specific cause of the fire],” said Horton. “Right now, they’re still trying to figure it out.”
The Stewart Air Guard, and West Point Fire Departments aided at the scene. New Windsor and Cornwall-on-Hudson Fire Departments provided standby.
“We were down to our bare minimum of men,” said Horton. “It showed that day, it was a little bit more difficult to get that fire out with the bare minimum, as opposed to when we were running 12 or 13 men a tour.”
In Horton’s 17 years with the department, he’s never seen the department have to operate at its current staffing levels. The department’s current authorized strength is 53 members including him. “We’ve never operated at that number,” said Horton. “It’s going to be a learning curve for us. It’s going to result in increased overtime.”
“What we’re going to have to do as a management team,” said Horton. “Is bring a plan forward that will allow us to bring people back, properly staff the apparatus, and manage the overtime so that it’s effective and efficient for the taxpayers.”
Horton believes that “many of the difficulties we face now is because we haven’t had a permanent fire chief since 2016.”
“One of my biggest jobs is to ensure there is good succession planning,” said Horton. “So, when I retire, whenever that is, that there’s not another gap we experience in leadership.”