The South Orange Village Board of Trustees met on August 12 at the South Orange Performing Arts Center on August 12 to discuss, among other issues, consolidating its fire department with that of Maplewood in an effort to save money for taxpayers in both municipalities.  The trustees were set to consider a resolution affirming the establishment with Maplewood of a joint meeting to effect the merger of their fire departments so as to give both towns equal say in managing the merged department.  This aroused a great deal of concern and opposition to the staffing levels from the many firemen, from South Orange and Maplewood as well as other municipalities, who attended.

At issue were the clauses in the resolution that stated in the shared-service arrangement with Maplewood would have a single fire department with seventy uniformed fire personnel , one fire chief, and each tour, or shift, having seventeen personnel assigned with a minimum of fourteen on-duty, with current minimum staffing levels unchanged in both departments.  Several firefighters, after going over the arrangement, said the report on consolidation did not take recommendations from the rank-and-file into account.  John Jennings, president of the Local 40 union, noted that South Orange had gone from ten-man crews to nine-man crews in 2009 after the national financial crisis and has since been reduced to eight.  Jennings said that firefighters have gotten fatigued by working extra shifts under these circumstances, and that a staffing of 70 firefighters was too small.    

Firefighter Wayne Volk, Vice President of the New Jersey FMBA added that the report on consolidation left out the fact that Maplewood is also running an ambulance under a 14-man crew, which answered 57 percent of Maplewood’s emergency calls over the previous two years.   Volk said that this posed a risk for fires that come in on an additional alarm under such circumstances.

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“If that happens, when the fire comes in on that additional alarm, you are not going to have the proper staffing to accomplish what needs to be done,” Volk said, fearing that it would reduce the number of firefighters in the crew.  He asked that personnel be brought up to the minimal number of sixteen men per crew, according to the standards of the National Fire Protection Association.

Other firefighters echoed these sentiments throughout public comment.  Tom Tevlin, a Caldwell resident who was a Maplewood firefighter for 33 years, said residents of either town shouldn’t be made to feel insecure when a reduction of manpower is being considered in the combined fire department when both departments are currently understaffed.  John Collucci said there was an opportunity to succeed with this plan but also an opportunity for catastrophe.  “This merger is being watched by the entire state,” he told the trustees.  “If you guys take just a little bit more time, sit back, listen to the input from labor, from management, and each other, you’re going to have something that’s a model for the state.” 

Also, Yvonda Patterson, a South Orange resident who had just endured an electrical fire in her house, pointed out to the trustees that the preponderance of wooded areas in town make for more dangerous conditions for fire.  She cited the recent fireworks fired off in more forested parts of town that could have led to a conflagration had things not gone right, stressing the need for a full-staffed fire service.

Village President Sheena Collum sought to assure residents and firefighters that the village’s priority to always to produce the best and most reliable public services to residents, with finding efficiencies second and cost savings third.  However, she sought to clarify some of the issues that were raised.  She asked Jennings about his perception that the savings being sought amount to two to six dollars a month per household, and he replied that the officers’ union came up with the number and relayed the information to him.   She asked if two fire chiefs were necessary for a combined department.  Jennings replied that one chief was enough.

 President Collum then explained that there were 76 uniformed staffers between both fire departments of South Orange and Maplewood, and that understaffing refers not to the table of the organization but the vacancies within.  She also said that when overtime was pushing over $570,000, South Orange was about four firefighters short, but the board of trustees had no intention to leave vacancies but to fill them as quickly as possible.  But Jennings and Volk as well, stressed that the right staffing was key to meeting requirements, and that staffing on an engine or a truck was too low.  They said that there should be at least four men to an engine, and five men to truck.

President Collum also said that the village ran the numbers in looking at a possible merger, and they took everything into account when considering the staffing of the combined fire service, especially health care and pension costs.  She said that a community doesn’t just hire firefighters, it invests in them, and that she wanted a good investment.

“I’ve been criticized for not wanting to involve firefighters,” she said, “but throughout this entire process, I’ve just asked for written documentation, so the joint exploratory committee, which was established via resolution, would all have the same set of information.”  She added that additional information remained welcome.      

The board of trustees pulled the resolution out of the consent agenda and reworded it to strike the reference to 70 uniformed fire personnel, though the language referring to one fire chief remained, and to strike minimum numbers for personnel per tour and for on-duty staffers to allow negotiations to continue on the staff numbers as both towns move toward an ordinance.  With those amendments, the trustees approved it 6-0.  President Collum also said that the resolution was procedurally a measure working off unions’ input from a meeting about the issue in March. 

“We’re going to continue working in good faith with you,” President Collum told the firefighters.

The trustees also passed resolutions continuing in-house policies for historic preservation in the South Orange master plan, rejecting all requests for proposals from private contractors, authorizing auctions of abandoned bicycles, and hiring an as-needed part-time electrical inspector for the building department.  An ordinance appropriating a supplemental expenditure of $700,000 for a new water main on Scotland Road was withdrawn.