BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ – As reported, volunteer fire departments across the country are losing thousands of dollars after fundraisers they rely on for operational costs are being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 had canceled the Berkeley Heights Volunteer Fire Department's boot drive and their annual Spaghetti Dinner, a community staple enjoyed by all.

Without these major fundraising events, they are relying on community support to their fall fund drive letter as their only 2020 fundraising effort. 

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The letter that went out this past week outlined some facts about the department. The all volunteer department has responded to more than 550 calls for service annually and relies on its 35 volunteer members to respond to these calls. The BHFD is on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The volunteers spend an average of 6,000 hours annually serving Berkeley Heights. In addition, each volunteer member averages 300 training hours per year.

The type of calls the BHFD responds to include, but are not limited to, structure fires, vehicle extrications, carbon monoxide exposures and routine service calls. "Since the Berkeley Heights Fire Department is 100 percent volunteer, the taxpayers of Berkeley Heights will save an estimated $3,500,000 in salaries and wages over the course of this upcoming year," the letter stated.  

In addition, Adam Uanis, President of the Berkeley Heights Volunteer Fire Company #1, included a letter discussing the state of the all volunteer department.

"Like many volunteer fire departments around the United States, our department is struggling to retain qualified and experienced volunteers. This problem, if not addressed, will only worsen and potentially lead to a dangerous decrease in the level of service our department can provide you," he said.

Last year, TAPinto sat with Uanis and Captain Michael Schaumberg to learn the facts behind the department's manpower problem on retaining volunteers. Since 2008, roughly 75 members have joined the department, but due to the hundreds of hours in training, a majority of those who join the department resign.  

While those statistics may sound grim, the knee-jerk response of many is to “increase recruiting” efforts. According to Uanis, recruiting isn’t the problem, it’s retaining younger members of the department – those who joined while in high school, are attending college, still living in their family home and working at least part-time. Even if these younger recruits stay until they graduate college, the high cost of living in Berkeley Heights prevents most from purchasing a home or even renting an apartment. Instead, they move out of town and resign from the fire department. Of the 35 active volunteers, 14 reside outside the township of Berkeley Heights. 

Call volume has increased almost 150% since 1990, in part because of the growth experienced by the township and the opening of Interstate 78, and, going forward, is expected to continue to increase because of the many new developments approved – more than 1,000 housing units.

The BHFD has asked the Township to implement an incentive and retention programpdf. "To ensure that the Berkeley Heights Fire Department can provide the highest level of service to our residents and businesses, build future generations of firefighters, and minimally impact municipal budgets, an incentive and retention program must be implemented," said Uanis. "The incentive and retention program that we have requested to be incorporated into the municipal budget, will increase the productivity of our volunteers and encourage them to remain a volunteer for many years to come. This merit-based program will cost approximately $300,000 per year, or $32 per household, a small amount compared to the alternatives." 

“The cost alternative to our plan, if we fail to get the township to adopt an incentive and retention plan will be very expensive," Uanis said. The fire department asks residents to voice their support for an incentive and retention plan to the elected officials. 

"The governing body and their administration, both past and present, have been very supportive of our operation by providing us with the equipment and training necessary to protect life and property. But, they have not been able to make progress in implementing their proposed investment to personnel," said Uanis.

One thing is certain, “when you get a fire truck from here, you will get a qualified driver, a qualified officer and one or two qualified firefighters on that truck … as Deputy Chief, I want to be sure that when they show up they are going to be able to handle it. Somebody’s life may depend on that, but their lives depend upon it as well,” said Deputy Chief Jim Hopkins.

To learn more about the department's incentive and retention program, email  info @berkeleyheightsfire.com.

To donate online visit www.berkeleyheightsfire.com/donate. Or checks can be mailed to: Berkeley Heights Fire Dept., 411 Hamilton Avenue, Berkeley Heights, NJ 07922.