Firefighter union officials said the Ferraro’s fire could have been under control faster if duty crews were larger and the town’s ladder truck was deployed.
FMBA President Mike Sawicki said budget cuts and the town’s hiring freeze put only six firefighters on duty when the blaze erupted at midnight on Thursday. He said at least one more firefighter on duty would have allowed the ladder truck to be deployed to the fire.
“To see the place get destroyed and to have our ladder truck 150 yards away, it would have made a difference,” he said. “Maybe we could have saved the building.”
Cranford had the first ladder truck to respond and handled primary aerial fighting of the fire. Fanwood, Kenilworth and Mountainside’s ladder trucks assisted with providing access to the roof of the building.
Sawicki and the FMBA have been pressing for an increase in the mandatory minimum on fire crews since last year. The firefighters’ union has asked the town restore the numbers to nine man crews and to hire additional firefighters to fill five vacancies in the currently 32-man department. The five vacancies, which occurred since the town implemented a hiring freeze in 2010 have been caused by three retirements and the off duty deaths of Jim Pfeiffer and Danny Maglione.
Town officials have said that the town’s current fiscal situation, including a decline in non-tax revenue over the past several years and the newly implemented two-percent property tax cap have hindered them from hiring more firefighters. During the April 26 Town Council meeting, when FMBA Vice President James Ryan Jr. brought the issue up, Councilman Mark Ciarrocca said that the town reached an agreement with the FMBA on salary concessions to prevent layoffs. Ciarrocca, the finance committee chairman and former public safety committee chairman, said the town government is trying to keep from moving to an all-volunteer department.
Sawicki said the town needs to address the issue, which is he said is becoming a public safety issue.
“We got lucky that there wasn’t anyone on the third floor,” Sawicki said, noting only the ladder could reach that high. “We didn’t have a ladder. If we had to do a pick off with a ladder, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Firefighters put the saving of people before property saving when responding to a fire, according to Sawicki and Ryan. Those in the apartments above Ferraro’s had gotten out prior to the fire department arriving.
Sawicki said April’s four-alarm fire at the Hamilton House Apartment’s on Mountain Avenue could have also likely been prevented if the ladder truck had been deployed from Westfield, instead of waiting for one from Mountainside.
“I have lived in Cranford my whole life and my parents grew up in Westfield,” he said. “I have never heard of this happening, we lost two buildings in a month. It relates to the cut in manpower.”
Sawicki said that under the six person duty crew, three person crews operate the engines coming out of the town's two firehouses. He said when the duty crews moved to have seven firefighters each, two operated the engine and ladder truck at headquarters and three an engine from firehouse two on Central Avenue. He said the six-person crew does not allow for a split at the main firehouse between the engine and ladder truck since three firefighters are assigned to firehouse two.
Town officials were quick to praise the work of the fire department at the Ferraro’s fire but largely declined to comment on the manpower issue. Mayor Andy Skibitsky, who held a meeting with fire department brass Thursday afternoon about the fire, said did not want to comment.
“I’m not going to negotiate with the FMBA in the newspaper,” Skibitsky said.
The mayor quickly focused on his thoughts about the fire, noting that over 80 firefighters from 16 departments responded to the six-alarm blaze, staying in to the early morning hours.
“I am very proud of this department, the firefighters from neighboring communities,” he said.
Councilwoman Joann Neylan, the public safety committee chairwoman, also declined to comment on the manpower issue, focusing instead on the Ferraro’s situation.
“I think the fireman did a great job and thank god no one was hurt,” she said. “Fires are big and spread quickly.”
Councilman Keith Loughlin, the public safety committee vice chairman, declined to discuss the specifics of the manpower issue, but said the town’s fiscal situation prevents the hiring proposed by the FMBA. He said he would prefer to hire more staff for the police, fire and public works departments.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have the money in our municipal budget,” Loughlin said. “We have to do more with less.”
Loughlin said that the economic situation forces the town to considering working more with neighboring towns, including on mutual aid for fire prevention. He did say he believes the town has met standards for fire manpower.
“I believe our department meets or exceeds federal safety standards for manpower,” he said. “I continue to assure the citizens of Westfield that they are good hands.”
The FMBA has said the staffing levels do not meet suggested staffing levels from national firefighting groups and the city management association. Ryan said one formula he has seen for staffing based on Westfield’s population would give the town 48 firefighters.
Sawicki said he has brought up grants to the town to hire firefighters, including the SAFER Act grant offered by FEMA to hire new firefighters in local departments. He said town officials have rejected the grant idea telling the FMBA that the grants only last for two years.
Loughlin said he would like to explore possible grants for all departments, reiterating a campaign theme for his successful 2009 election. He did say there is one thing he would look for in grants.
“I want to make sure the grants we apply for are beneficial to Westfield and not creating additional government bureaucracy that hinders them from doing their job,” he said.
Loughlin said he also would like the public safety committee to meet with fire department officials to discuss the ladder truck issue.
“I would like to find out why we are not using all the equipment we have,” he said.
Sawicki said he hopes the fire will bring the debate back to the Council table.
“I hope the mayor and Council really look at this and consider beefing up the fire department to four nine man crews,” he said.