The debate over Fire Department manpower levels went before the Town Council Tuesday evening as discussion over the six-alarm Ferraro’s fire took center stage.
The size of the town’s firefighting crews – with six firefighters on duty on shifts – was debated again with resident John Blake and the head of the firefighter’s union advocating for a rise in manpower levels and town officials saying that they are not trying to put the public at risk.
Blake, who has been speaking on fire safety issues, for several weeks cited a recent report by Insurance Services Office, Inc. ion Marlton, which he said shows the town’s decreased manpower as negatively impacting the town’s rating. ISO develops ranking of local fire departments to serve as a guide for insurance companies in developing rates for homeowner’s coverage.
Blake also cited ISO comments that recommended 8.7 firefighters on a duty crew for a town. Westfield presently has six firefighters on a duty crew, down from a level of nine. He said the report was compiled when the town had 37 firefighters, before three recent retirements and two recent off-duty deaths.
The town’s ISO ranking fell from Class 2 in a 1992 report to Class 3. According to data included in the report, 52 fire departments in New Jersey are listed in Class 3, while 12 are in Class 2 and one is in Class 1. ISO has a total of 11 classes. Nationally 2015 fire departments are in Class 3, with slightly over 600 departments in Classes 1 and 2 combined.
Blake continued his questioning from the previous Council meeting on how budget cuts to the fire department were determined.
“The only person any of you checked with is the accountant,” Blake said. “There was no expert in the field of firefighting who told us what we needed.”
Since the manpower issue developed in the summer of 2010, town officials have said the staffing levels were determined to prevent further cuts and cited negotiations with the FMBA to preserve jobs. Two weeks ago, when Blake and FMBA officials cited the manpower issue in relation to April’s four-alarm fire at the Hamilton House Apartments, Councilman Mark Ciarrocca said the town is working to prevent the creation of an all-volunteer department.
Blake criticized Council members and Mayor Andy Skibitsky for declining to comment on the manpower issue in relation to the Ferraro’s fire last week. He also said he found the Council’s actions in saying they knew what was needed to be along the lines of French King Louis XIV’s famous quote “L’Etat, c’est moi,” translated to “I am the state.”
“None of you are the state, none of you are the town,” Blake said. “You swore you would protect us.”
Blake cited what he described as “implied comments” from Ciarrocca where he said Ciarrocca had said that lower fire department staffing would be a public safety risk. Councilman Jim Foerst stressed that the wording were that the comments were Blake’s definition of the comments. Ciarrocca was not present at the meeting.
Town Administrator Jim Gildea took to the microphone for nine minutes following Blake’s remarks to praise firefighter and police officers who responded to Feraro’s and to refute statements from Blake.
“This was a textbook excellent job in containing a downtown fire that could have been catastrophic,” Gildea said. “I don’t want my house burning either. To suggest that any of you up here or me or anyone else reduced the fire department staff because we’re not worried about our community or our homes is ridiculous.”
Gildea stressed the ISO is primarily used by the insurance industry and the work done in developing the ranking. He said a preliminary ISO report in the summer of 2010 had Westfield in a Class 4 rating by ISO for water supply and communication issues. He said fire and police officials worked to develop plans to address the questions raised and put in new systems to move the rating higher.
Gildea spent time praising the response of first responders during the Ferraro’s fire. He recounted the work of eight police officers on the scene, including one breaking down an apartment door to save a resident. He also touched on the fire department response, thanking firefighters on the scene and noting that off-duty firefighters were called for the fire, including FMBA President Mike Sawicki, who was in the audience when Gildea was speaking.
Gildea noted as part of the response, Cranford had sent the first ladder truck to the scene. The ladder truck issue has been cited by Sawicki and other FMBA officials in advocating for increased duty crews. During the Ferraro’s fire, the ladder truck sat in the firehouse since a seven-man crew is needed to operate the ladder truck and both engine trucks.
During brief remarks to the Council, Sawicki said he wants to keep the issue focused on manpower. Sawicki has been advocating for increased duty crews, including his vice president, James Ryan Jr., speaking to the Council a week before the Ferraro’s fire to discuss a possible impact on future fires.
Sawicki, who has worked with Gildea on the development of a firefighters’ contract which did not contain raises, said he hopes the current discussion can continue to provide larger duty crews. Sawicki, who said he understood the current economic situation, said he is trying to keep it as a public safety issues.
“As far as ISO ratings and stuff we’re here to protect and serve the people of Westfield and make sure we go home at the end of shifts.