Concerns for public safety in light of Saturday afternoon's Barchester Way fire dominated Tuesday's meeting of the Westfield Town Council.
Bill Lavin, president of the New Jersey Firefighter's Mutual Benevolent Association, spoke before the Council to express his fears that current staffing levels coupled with mutual aid requirements are leaving fire departments across the state short on resources.
When the three-alarm fire started on Barchester Way, one of the Westfield Fire Department units was responding to a call for mutual aid from Springfield, leaving only one unit with three members available to respond.
"I understand that there is a grant application in process, there is the hope to hire but I'm here today to underscore the need for manpower and we spend, at times, an inordinate amount of money on equipment," Lavin said. "I reference the Springfield Department because they have, if you've seen their headquarters...there are more toilets in the facility than there are firefighters on duty."
Lavin recalled a time in Westfield when there were 10 firefighters on duty and two engines and a truck, though the standard, he pointed out, is really to have 16 firefighters on duty "trying to do their best."
"In this instance, because one unit was out of town, you had three individuals trying to do the work of fifteen; one guy trying to do the work of five," Lavin said.
Lavin stated that in "a community like Westfield where taxes are significant," a minimum response time should be able to be provided.
Residents who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting indicated that it took between 12 and 20 minutes for firefighters to begin battling Saturday's blaze.
Lavin pointed out that mutual aid, when companies are properly staffed, "is the way to go, however, this is a domino effect."
"Because of the economy and the tax base, most fire departments are understaffed," he said. "We do more with less, now we do less with less."
Mayor Andy Skibitsky pointed to the recent sewer fee as a way that the Town Council is trying to keep a paid fire department.
"We're working hard to keep a paid fire department in the Town of Westfield," Skibitsky said.
Illustrating Lavin's point, Ellen DiIorio, whose Cumberland Street home was destroyed by a fire in September, said that she and her husband had to be rescued from their bedroom window by neighbors. DiIorio, who lost her pets and all her belongings, said the Westfield Fire Department did not have enough men to be able to fight the fire so they were forced to wait 15 minutes before Plainfield firefighters came to their rescue.
"If we had had children across the hall or an elderly parent who was bedridden, we would not have been able to rescue them and they could have possibly lost their lives because the Westfield Fire Department, their hands were tied, and they could not enter the building," DiIorio said. "I'm here to plead with you that we could have enough firefighters in Westfield to avoid a possible loss of human life in Westfield. I feel very strongly about this because I am a taxpayer for 38 years in Westfield. I love the town of Westfield and I loved my home and I can never go home again."
Councilwoman JoAnn Neylan, chair of the public safety committee, said she was sorry for DiIorio's loss.
"My heart breaks, I feel terrible, but I'd like to just express, it's not us against you, at all. We're taxpayers, I live in the same town, we share the same risk that you do. We're doing the best job we can. I feel very sad to hear a sorrowful story like that. If we could afford to have more firemen, we would," Neylan said.
Westfield Fire Department Lt. Tim Brennan, who lives in town with his wife and children, near, in fact, to DiIorio's former home, spoke before the Council and said he no longer feels safe.
"Taxes don't go down for services I no longer have," Brennan said.
Brennan said Westfield firefighters will "still do whatever if takes" because it is in their nature but battling fires such as the one at Ferraro's last May and the one at Hamilton House in April 2011 are becoming increasingly difficult without adequate manpower. Fires that could previously be contained to one room are now spreading, Brennan said.
"We're still fast and effective, but we are no longer fully capable," he said.
While no one was injured in the Barchester Way fire, DiIorio and Brennan both implored the Council to act before a human life is lost.
Click on the attached video for more from the meeting.