The debate over minimum staffing levels in the Fire Department continued Tuesday night; with firefighter advocates saying “luck” saved a life during the Hamilton House Apartment fire earlier this month.
FMBA Vice President James Ryan Jr. told the Town Council that the Council’s decision to cut minimum staffing levels has placed firefighters and residents in jeopardy. Town officials have said the cut, from nine to seven, was done to prevent layoffs in the department.
“We accept risk when we choose this profession, what we don’t accept is the gross understaffing,” Ryan said.
Ryan said that the four-alarm fire at the Mountain Avenue apartment complex on April 4 had two Westfield fire trucks with three firefighters each responding at the start. He indicated that Westfield’s ladder truck was unable to respond due to the lack of firefighters on duty.
Ryan said that two firefighters had to go into save Roy Rentrop from the burning building early on and that the injury list could have been worse. The fire originated in Rentrop’s apartment and he was found on the living floor with smoke inhalation and burns. Rentrop was flown to St. Barnabas in Livingston where he was admitted to the burn ICU.
“Instead of operating using industry best practices, the Westfield Fire Department has been relaying on luck for far too long,” Ryan said.
Ryan said that if victims had been on higher floors – the building is only two stories – or there were higher floors with flames above Rentrop, it would have been impossible to make rescues. Ryan said using the town’s ladder truck would have made it easier to combat the fire and to make rescues if it were a larger building.
Ryan said the ladder truck has not responded to seven out of the eight last big fires, noting that three of the counties 21 towns do not use a ladder truck on a regular basis. In addition to Westfield, Ryan said Garwood and Winfield, the counties two smallest towns, are the others. He said the first ladder truck, from Mountainside, was the first to respond half an hour after Westfield arrived.
“We did not need to lose the entire building,” Ryan said. “There was one guy on the roof. We were taught on the first day of firefighter school to work in pairs. If someone was on the third or fourth floor, we did not have a ladder long enough. We don’t want to watch someone jump to their death.”
Ryan criticized town officials for comparing Westfield to Summit in making staffing decisions. He said that Westfield’s size is larger than Summit and Summit has a long-standing relationship with the Millburn fire department to provide mutual assistance at fires. He said if the Hamilton House fire had occurred in Summit, trucks from both towns would have responding quickly.
“Westfield is the fifth largest municipality in the county. Did you think on how we compare to the fourth largest or the fifth? You choose the ninth. That is arbitrary and capricious,” Ryan said. “You have made a conscious choice not to provide us with the resources.”
Ryan also cited the town being cited by the state labor department several years ago for dropping minimum manpower in the fire department, along with a soon to be released report from the state fire insurance office which downgrades the town’s fire insurance rating. Ryan said the insurance downgrade will cause insurance premiums to rise town wide.
Councilman Mark Ciarrocca, who has been involved in fire policy decisions in his role as finance committee chairman and public safety committee chairman, said he and Mayor Andy Skibitsky have enjoyed a good relationship with the FMBA and have worked with them on fire contracts. He said the key has been to prevent layoffs in the department and to not move the town to a volunteer fire department.
Ciarrocca said Summit was chosen due to the Hill City having a fulltime fire department and many major companies and Overlook are located in the city limits. He said this places the fire department in a unique position in Summit.
Town Administrator Jim Gildea stressed that he and other town officials have a good relationship with Ryan and FMBA President Mike Sawicki. He said the insurance rating downgrade does not relate to the manpower issue, but rather to water issues in town. He said that residents will not see a rise in insurance premiums.
“No one gave up more than the FMBA,” Gildea said in referring to contract negotiations between the town and the various bargaining units.
Carleton Road resident John Blake criticized the town for the fire staffing levels, saying that the town could find the money to hire more firefighters. He questioned the town’s ongoing hiring freeze and noted that five vacancies have occurred in the fire department over the last year. These include three retirements and the deaths of firefighters Jim Pfeiffer and Danny Maglione. Pfeiffer died following a freak accident while off duty and Maglione died of a rare form of cancer.
Blake said he has found other ways the town has found money to spend on projects.
“You have a traffic expert hired to go to a public school and you paid him hourly to listen to where junior can park his BMW,” Blake said, citing the town hall meeting on high school parking last month.
Blake questioned on who has been advising the Council on fire safety policy.
“The only expert you sought advice from is your accountant,” he said.
Blake also raised questions about the ladder truck’s usage.
“The only standard you use is money. You are playing with my house and my life. I will not let those items be put on the bargaining table,” Blake said. “You have a truck that sits impotent by your actions. You have an expensive piece of equipment and the only person tells you not to use it is your accountant.”
Ciarrocca engaged in a debate with Blake, noting the town is trying to keep the fire department a fulltime department and not move to an all-volunteer department like Mountainside or Scotch Plains. He said the town is working with in the state mandated two-percent property tax cap and that is causing issues in terms of what money can be spent.
Ciarrocca said that the traffic safety consultant, Gordon Meth, was paid $500 for the high school parking meeting and this would not fund the firefighters Blake is proposing to hire.
Blake said to the Council that he is worried about the lives of the firefighters.
“Like all good politicians, you’ll line up at the wake and give your condolences,” he said. “If you think I’m trying to put you on a guilt trip? I am.”