July 12, 2022
By: Blaise Gomez

There’s a deep divide in the City of Newburgh when it comes to the issue of fire safety. That tension was seen at a public meeting Monday night where multiple people raised concerns and a veteran firefighter was escorted out by police. Scott Miles told city councilmembers during one heated exchange that they “have blood on their hands.” Newburgh Mayor Torrance Harvey instructed police to escort him from the City of Newburgh Activity Center, where the meeting was held due to the large turnout.

City officials have faced intense criticism for recent staffing cuts to save on the department’s overtime since a fatal blaze on Lander Street last month. Debra Benedict, 64, was killed and her son, Justin, was seriously injured after jumping from a third-story window to escape the flames. Newburgh City Manager Todd Venning cut the minimum number of firefighters on duty in January from 10 to seven rescuers.

Critics say if more firefighters had shown up the outcome of the deadly blaze could’ve been different.

The mayor disagrees. “It had nothing to do with manpower,” said Harvey. “There was a trailer on Lander Street blocking the engine from coming to that fire, in addition to a delayed 911 call and a grease fire being self-extinguished with water,” he says.

Harvey says the department is politicizing the fire for financial gain after city cutbacks reduced overtime costs that in some cases doubled firefighter salaries. “Certain people say they’re interested in public safety and people are going to die, and they use this inflammatory language and this fear mongering tactic, when they’re really interested in their bottom line – which are these numbers,” said Harvey.

IAFF Local 589 Union President Nicholas Bedetti disagrees and say their solutions to overtime problems have fallen on deaf ears, while the finger pointing is causing a department “filled with disgruntled employees.” Bedetti says firefighters feel unsafe at work and are unable to do their jobs.

Debra Benedict’s older son, James, believes his mother could have been saved if more than four rescuers showed up to the call. “That’s just unacceptable. In any standards,” said Benedict. “Because my mom lived in a low-income area, that makes her expendable.”

Harvey says the city wants to compromise and is ready to hire part-time firefighters, but the union says that suggestion is not a solution. In the meantime, Benedict says he won’t stop advocating for change. “I just don’t want anyone else to have to go through what me and my family are going through,” says Benedict.