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Barchester Way Fire Ignites Public Safety Concerns

Bill Lavin, president of the NJ Firefighter's Mutual Benevolent Association, spoke before the Westfield Town Council to underscore the need for additional manpower.

Concerns for public safety in light of Saturday afternoon's 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 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 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  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 last May and the one at  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. 

E Liz May 23, 2012 at 04:06 PM
When I applied for homeowner's insurance a few years ago, they asked me how many feet from my house was a fire hydrant (less than 250) and how many miles away a fire house was (1/3 mile). They never asked how many full time firemen our department has. I think there is a very big assumption that we make living in a suburban area, where you can basically get from one end of the town to the other in 5-10 minutes (less if you're a fire truck with sirens blaring and people hopefully moving out of the way for you) that help will be there in a matter of minutes whether it's police, ambulance or fire that is needed. If we need firemen, they should be hired immediately - take the money from the sports field upgrade, or parades/street fairs, or somewhere else non-essential. Both the Ferraro's fire and the Clyne & Murphy fires were large, and I would expect Westfield to need help from neighboring towns battling those ... but if my house or any other residential property in Westfield is burning, I would expect nothing less than adequate equipment and manpower to be there in 5 minutes.
NR9 May 23, 2012 at 04:07 PM
@Westfield Parent. There is a requirement that a certain number of firefighters must be on the scene in order for them to begin fighting the fire. What you describe as firefighters who "just stood there watching" was really firefighters wanting to begin but having to WAIT for the additional number of firefighters required in order to begin. Those additional firefighters had to come from neighboring towns. If there were enough firefighters on duty in Westfield's own fire houses, such waiting would not be necessary. This is why more firefighters are needed in Westfield.
Douglas S. May 23, 2012 at 05:08 PM
There is no doubt we have quality firemen and policmen in Westfield. In order to continue this level of excellence and maintain the saftey of our citizens, the only solution in lieu of any unrealistic hiring by the town is a high standard of sharing of services with surrounding towns. This is alluded to in prior comments. We must elevate this procees to protect our town. It is the only way we will survive.
Westfield Parent May 23, 2012 at 06:38 PM
Clyne & Murphy fire started from kitchen around three o'clock in the afternoon, bright daylight time. It was a small smoke to begin with. It was not a big fire. It BECAME a big fire because NOBODY did anything for HOURS! First waiting for neighboring town firemen to arrive, then waiting for the fancy elaborate complicated equipment to be set up. What happened to the old fashioned fire fighting, such as breaking into building, spraying fire extinguisher, climbing on the ladder over the wall? Clyne&Murphy was a simple one story building! All the other stores could and should have been saved! Standing there, watching and waiting is not how to fight the fire! Something is terribly wrong here. The firemen are paid a decent amount of money and the results are just plain unacceptable!
NR9 May 23, 2012 at 06:50 PM
@Westfield Parent. The firefighters themselves should not be blamed. In fact, they should be commended. The problem is that they have their hands tied when it comes to the rules about when they are allowed to begin their work. The rules are in place for the firefighters' own safety. However, until the proper number of firefighters are there at the scene (oftentimes delayed due to having to wait for more to arrive from neighboring towns since we don't have enough on duty in Westfield), they have no choice but to wait, as the fire increases in size and more damage takes place. Your blame of the firefighters is mis-directed. It should instead be directed at our mayor and town council who keep telling us we can "get more with less" when we all know that we "get less with less." For a few extra cents per day (see my 11:07am post above), we can get rid of our staffing problem very easily.
william bobble May 23, 2012 at 08:31 PM
well put NR9. Westfield parent needs to grow up, its only a couple of cents. Im sure they spend more than that a day on a cup of coffee. when it comes to safety why not have more firemen. im sure if it was someones house that you knew was on fire your tune would change!
Sally McBride May 23, 2012 at 08:55 PM
Since we are relying on mutial aid so much, why don't we just close all of the local firedepartments, and combine them into one county wide one. We can reduce the number of cheifs and hire more people that actually fight the fires.
NR9 May 23, 2012 at 10:16 PM
The front page of this week's Westfield Leader has a picture showing TWO ROWS of the audience FILLED with Westfield firefighters who attended last night's council meeting “to show concern over low staffing levels at the Westfield Fire Department." This photo and caption speaks volumes about the serious staffing problem under which these firefighters are being asked to perform their duties. By being penny-wise and pound-foolish, the mayor and town council is putting these firefighters' lives (and our citizens' lives) at higher risk than necessary. This problem could go away with a few extra cents per day from each household (see posts above). Online edition of this week's paper: http://www.goleader.com/12may24/12may24.pdf
NR9 May 23, 2012 at 10:36 PM
In this week's Westfield Leader, councilman Frank Arena accused John Blake of "having an agenda" when speaking up in favor of increasing the staff levels in the fire dept. Doesn't everyone speaking up, whether citizen or politician or both, "have an agenda"? Mr. Blake's "agenda" is to beef up staffing in the fire dept. to levels appropriate for the size of our town and which our town used to have in years' past. Yet, Mr. Arena is suggesting this to be some kind of a "dubious" goal by Blake. While one may agree or disagree with the adequacy of staffing levels, one could hardly argue that Mr. Blake's "agenda," to increase fire dept. staffing, is for something dishonorable. Perhaps, Mr. Arena couldn't come up with any solid counterpoints to Mr. Blake's points and so he resorted to a character attack on Mr. Blake? Seems like this has been the usual way by which the council/mayor attack citizens when they have no good points in response to those citizens. Once again, Councilman Dave Haas should be commended for speaking up against such treatment of citizens by fellow council members and not simply going along with the majority on the council (See Westfield Leader for more details on this).
Proud of our FD May 23, 2012 at 11:31 PM
Proud of our FD to westfield parent REALLY my guess is you transplanted from nyc. do you have any clue as to what our firefighters do? they risk their lives to save people like you and all residents of whatever town they work in. you need to do some research on rules and regulations of firefighters. we have been using our volunteers as well as our paid people but not all volunteers show all the time.
A.John Blake May 24, 2012 at 02:04 AM
I first must thank NR9 for coming to my defense. I agree it has unfortunately become the habit of the Council to insult its critics rather than answer them. After reading Westfield Parent, it is most difficult not to insult. Since Westfield Parent does not use any provable facts to support his/her position, it is probably better to ignore. The Council now says "if we could afford more firemen, we would" This is not consistent with the credo they previously touted that"The lesser number of firemen has no impact on Public Safety" They can't have it both ways. They have either lowered our safety or they did not. Mrs. Neylan took umbrage at my comment that they walk in lock step. She should ask Ms Timmins what happened when the latter broke ranks on the Central Ave light matter. She was excoriated by the Mayor and has been silent since. Ms Neylan ran for office saying she would do her best. She did not run saying she would meet the minimal legal requirements. By taking office, she is responsible. If she cut the police budget by removing armor vests, and a cop was shot. She didn't pull the trigger but what solace would she have in knowing that she was under budget. You cut the firemen's numbers and told us we were safe. Live with your decision and your statement. A.John Blake
Jeff B May 24, 2012 at 03:09 AM
Whose rules are leaving the firefighters "hands tied"? I think a lot of people are sick and tired of Westfield taxes going up year after year at way more than the inflation rate - including a "bonus" $170 sewer fee this year plus the big school bond issue, mostly for roofs for which the Board of Education should have been setting aside money for the last ten years and did not. Perhaps Westfield should explore how volunteer fire fighters work out in other towns to expand our available firefighting capability if this is not just some union "work slowdown", as previously suggested.
jim kernan May 24, 2012 at 06:54 AM
9007 @Westfield Parent: the salary you pay firefighters (& police officers) is not a suicide pact. get some decent staffing in your town. your council cut staffing to save money to help avoid or reduce tax increases. had they not, I'm sure you would complain about that. the mutual aid that you rely is coming from towns that did the same as yours (i.e.: no ones coming!) a lot of the time, you don't have a need for that many firefighters to be on duty. until there's a real fire. also, please look up firefighter training info so you can learn why you don't enter a building until you have backup personnel on site. jk9007
NR9 May 24, 2012 at 10:33 AM
@Jeff B. I don't know the name of the governing body or the name of the rules. My comment/understanding is based purely on what I've read in Patch/Westfield Leader but, from what I've read, there is a requirement that 4 firefighters must be present in order to begin fighting the fire and that oftentimes, a team of 3 firefighters show up and must wait for additional firefighters to arrive before starting. And, with these reinforcements often coming from outside of Westfield, the delays can be significant. There could be other rules involved. I just know that these rules have frequently been cited as being a cause of delays, leading to additional destruction. There could be other requirements in terms of # of firefighters/equipment needed to start as well. If someone out there with more detailed knowledge on these rules (current/retired firefighters?) could add to this discussion with more specifics, that would be appreciated. Thanks.
Westfield123 May 24, 2012 at 06:25 PM
We need more Fire Fighters for safety. Typical Union scare tactics. The Ladder Truck was wrecked because some idiot Fireman was driving up Seneca like a madman during the height of the Hurricane with pouring rain and zero visibility. He's lucky no one got hurt. Who is in charge of the Public Works Employees? I see a lot of the them going to Breakfast after they clock in. Why don't they eat before they arrive at work? Also the WPD Internal Affairs should be investigating the 50% Police Discount at Chipotle.
NR9 May 24, 2012 at 06:32 PM
@Westfield123: "We need more Fire Fighters for safety. Typical Union scare tactics." What do you consider to be the appropriate number of firefighters required for our town based on our population, geographic area, etc.? Do we currently have more than that amount or less than that amount? Please support your sarcasm with actual numbers.
A.John Blake May 24, 2012 at 10:08 PM
There is no doubt that we pay high taxes. The need for more firemen has nothing to do with unions. The Bd.of Ed.'s wastefulness before, which now requires a bond issue, has nothing to do with firemen. One unalterable fact is that fire builds on itself and doubles every minute it is not being supressed. The faster water gets on the fire, the faster the containment begins. If it takes Plainfield 10 minutes to get here, the fire has doubled itself ten times while we waited. The damage is greater the longer we wait. Firemen are not allowed to enter a fire alone. There must be two men who go in and, if they get into trouble, there must be two men outside who are ready to rush to their aid. Meanwhile you need one man per truck to make sure the pumps keep working and another at the hydrant to insure the integrity of the water supply. That's six men right there without any supervisor etc. You could probably buy a car a lot cheaper without air bags and seat belts. Are you. Going to let your kids drive around without those protections because they "probably" won't need them? If it's cheaper to run the Police Dep't by stopping the practice of one car backing up another, are you going to authorize the end of a proven safety measure to save a few bucks? Then are you going to tell the driver of the car or the policeman on duty that your savings have not affected their safety. That's exactly what our Council has done. They've cut back and told us there was no impact on Public Safety.
Mrs Smith May 24, 2012 at 11:22 PM
Westfield parent - no staffing for truck is the reason it sat at HQ, nfpa and OSHA govern firefighting training. Can't go in wo back up outside. Old fashioned firefighting tactics is what led to many deaths and injuries, thats why there are RULES in place by OSHA and NFPA. Also see my response to Westfield 123. KWC - there are volunteers and they respond when they can. NR9 - NFPA OSHA, as I state below there are about 10 firefighter positions vacant. A John Blake & Jim Kernan, well said Jeff B- there was off duty personnel en route to fire hq to cover the engine that was en route to Springfield when this fire came in. Also as I said to NR9, OSHA and NFPA govern the training of firefighters.
Mrs Smith May 24, 2012 at 11:22 PM
Westfield 123 - scare tactics have nothing to do with it, go to any paid department and see what their minimum staffing is. There should be enough to staff 2 engines, first one to start initial attack, 2nd engine to supply first engine water and back up, it's called a rit/ric and then there is the truck company. Guess how many people it takes to raise a 35 foot ladder, 4-5 people. With current staff, 5-6 ff on duty, no truck, 3 people to an engine, and one person outside to operate the pump. From 1st due engine there are 2 people to start initial attack meaning they have to wait for the 2nd due engine to get on scene and since there are only 6 people working there is nobody to operate the truck. That means search and rescue and ventilation have to wait for Cranford to arrive so they can begin. So mr 123 you tell us how many people are required. You just seem to have a gripe on what your tax dollars are paying for. You never grab a bite to eat while you are at work? A 50% discount I'm sure was given as a courtesy to PUBLIC SAFETY employees for protecting the township of Westfield. No reason to waste more of your tax dollars to investigate a non-issue. Speaking of tax dollars, it seems crazy to me that your tax dollars are paying for a fully staffed fire department, 40 or so people. How come there are about 10 vacant spots that YOU ARE STILL PAYING FOR.
Mrs Smith May 24, 2012 at 11:23 PM
They have to pay out a lot of overtime to keep the bare minimum staffed. If a few more people were hired it would save the town some money of overtime. Think about that before you start complaining about the amount of people required to protect the residents of Westfield. How dare you call the firefighters idiots. They are PROTECTING YOU. The truck was damaged by a tree limb that fell during a hurricane that they should not have been out in but were because they were coming to the aid of the town residents.
Proud of our FD May 24, 2012 at 11:45 PM
Proud of our fd THANK YOU Mrs. Smith. I was trying to grt those facts to put out here but couldn't. I blew my cork. Thank you again
NR9 May 24, 2012 at 11:49 PM
@Mrs Smith. Very informative and helpful comments. Thank you!!!
NR9 May 25, 2012 at 01:19 AM
I would be very impressed with a politician who said: “We need to hire __ more firefighters if we want to be adequately staffed but we just don’t have the money. If each household kicked in an additional $__________ per year we can do it. Alternatively, we can keep taxes where they are but just know that by doing so, we’re taking on additional risks to our family’s lives and homes.” INSTEAD, we’re told that “Everything is just fine… the ladder truck is for scenic views… and we can ‘do more with less.’ ” With the straight-shooter politician, at least you know where you stand. With the other kind of politician, your head is in the sand (where they want it).
Been There! May 25, 2012 at 02:03 AM
Ok we have heard from the Public and the Town council along with i am sure a few well trained and knowlegable Firefighters. How about a comment by the Fire Cheif Dan Kelly. Whats you take Dan? Hummmm! very quiet I am sure. Jobs on the line! CYA! You were the Union President not long ago fighting for the men you now leave to the vultures. You are the Top guy , For the saftey of the people who rely on you to oversee the direction of the FD or r you just a puppet! Man up Dan! Think back you had a voice once!
A.John Blake May 25, 2012 at 10:50 AM
To "Been There" It is unfair to demand that the appointed head of a department voluntarily speak against the Mayor and Council.You should show up at a Council Meeting and ask the Mayor and Council why they don't ask The Chief to give his honest opinion. I have and, as usual, the Mayor and Council sat in stony silence. You are asking the appointed party to turn on the Mayor. There are good reasons why Kelly should remain silent. What reason could you possibly have to not ask the Mayor to invite Kelly up to the dais and require him to answer all questions honestly. That way Kelly is doing his duty to the appointing authority and we all will get the truth. The Mayor has declared Kelly as his expert in fire safety. I asked the Mayor to invite Kelly to the mike and ask Kelly if he agreed with the Council that the lower number of firemen had no impact on Public Safety. The Mayor remained silent.Why not require the Mayor to answer? A.John Blake
Dr. Barry glasser May 25, 2012 at 08:08 PM
Does any know what it takes or steps that it takes the get the mayor out of office. He clearly doesnt care for the safety of the town of westfield and is only concerned about saving a buck over a life. Who even wants a mayor like this. With all these taxes myself and the rest of the town of westfield pays i want i fully staffed fire department! Who's with me to go to the next town council meeting?
sally cohen-alameno June 02, 2012 at 02:45 PM
Am I correct that the next town council meeting is this coming Tuesday, June 5th?
Elizabeth Alterman (Editor) June 02, 2012 at 03:19 PM
Hi Sally, yes, you are correct. The meeting begins at 8 p.m. in the Council Chambers of the Municipal Building.
LLROWESTFIELD June 12, 2012 at 11:46 PM
Guys keep up the good work, and do the best that you can with what you have and be safe. No one seems to care about your being safe, everyone is about me me me. Hopefully things will change for the better sooner then later.....
NR9 July 13, 2012 at 02:54 PM
See this article which is available by link from Patch (but it’s from the Huffington Post by writer John Celock, providing the excellent investigating/reporting we’ve come to expect from him). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/13/fire-department-cuts-a-thousand-cuts_n_1659671.html If this isn’t proof that we are seriously understaffed in our fire dept., then I don’t know what is. Whether or not and how the town can raise funds to pay for additional firefighters is another story altogether. Admitting this staffing problem exists is half of the problem. Figuring out how we can get more firefighters is the other half of the problem. However, our mayor insists there is no staffing problem. In fact, in the article by John Celock, our mayor is quoted as saying: “We had over 100 firefighters at Ferraro’s.” Yes, that may be true, but how many of those were there during the most critical first few minutes of the fire and why were there not enough firefighters on duty so as to use the ladder truck that was parked right across the street at the fire house? There is clearly a staffing problem! Funding more fighters is another issue but there is clearly a staffing problem. ***Make sure to check out the above link to John Celock’s article about Westfield’s fire dept. staffing issues.***

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