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Massena firefighter expects few changes for village code office

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MASSENA - Fire Department Foreman and career firefighter Ken McGowan doesn’t foresee many changes in Massena’s code enforcement office in the coming months despite changes in personnel.

Gregory C. Fregoe retired from his post as code enforcement officer last week. He had held that position since 1999.

Mayor James F. Hidy does not plan to hire a replacement and is instead turning Mr. Fregoe’s duties over to career firefighters trained in code enforcement. Mr. McGowan and fellow career firefighter Aaron Hardy completed New York state code enforcement training in early November. They join career firefighter Bill O’Brien, who had previously received the training.

Two additional firefighters, Jeremy Lefeve and Matt Tuper, are trained as code compliance technicians, and Walt Bean will finish this training later this week, Mr. McGowan said.

A code compliance technician is trained in enforcing the fire and property maintenance codes, but is not certified in other code enforcement officer duties, such as issuing building permits or inspecting new construction projects.

Mr. Hidy has also authorized Mr. Tuper to complete his code enforcement training, which would allow the department to have one firefighter with this level of training on staff at all times, according to Mr. McGowan. The only exception to their availability is when the fire department has to respond to an emergency, which takes precedent over the fire department’s code enforcement duties. Mr. McGowan doesn’t see this as an issue as building inspections and other code enforcement duties are not particularly time-sensitive.

“I think the misconception people are getting is that a code enforcement official’s work is something that needs to be done immediately,” Mr. McGowan said. “If there’s a fire call (while a firefighter is performing code enforcement work), we’ll respond to that first.”

Firefighters trained in code enforcement will perform all of Mr. Fregoe’s former duties, including being present at planning and zoning board meetings to answer any questions board members may have related to the building code.

Some planning board members have expressed anxiety at the possibility of working with a group of code enforcement officials, as opposed to having the same individual at every meeting. Many were disappointed to learn of Mr. Fregoe’s retirement.

“(Mr. Fregoe) has a lot of knowledge, and he’s been a great asset to the planning board and to the community,” planning board member Shawn Burke said. “I feel it’s going to be a loss to the village without him.”

Mr. McGowan noted firefighters trained in code enforcement worked with Mr. Fregoe on recent projects and that they have also been working on fire inspections for the code office in recent years, which requires them to inspect about 400 properties per year.

“We assumed we’d be taking over when (Mr. Fregoe) retired, but we’ve had no concrete talks” on taking over code enforcement, he said previously.

Municipalities across the country are allocating code enforcement duties to firefighters as a way to consolidate duties and reduce expenses, Mr. McGowan said. “It’s a huge cost savings to the village because we’ve been doing code enforcement for a year now, and they don’t need to hire anybody else,” Mr. McGowan said previously.

Mr. McGowan said the fire department also benefits from code enforcement work because several firefighters are able to familiarize themselves with some village and town properties. And, when more familiar with a property, it is easier for firefighters to predict possible safety issues before going into a burning building, Mr. McGowan said.

“Basically, it gives us a leg up,” he said.

Another advantage to the arrangement is it allows firefighters to check for code violations while responding to a fire within a structure. The fire department has already cited several structures with building and safety code violations while responding to fires at those structures, Mr. McGowan said.

“We discovered violations that would have gone unnoticed (under the old code enforcement system),” Mr. McGowan said. “It’s already paying off.”

Mr. McGowan said the department also plans to send three additional firefighters for code compliance technician training this summer.

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