BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ – Fire Department officers are grappling with a manpower problem – how to retain their volunteers. Since 2008, 75 members of the department have resigned – only five of those retired. Ten of the volunteers served less than two years and 36 never finished the Firefighter 1 course.

While those statistics may sound grim, the knee jerk response of many is to “increase recruiting” efforts. According to Adam Uanis, president of the Berkeley Heights Fire Department, and Captain Michael Schaumberg, 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.

“The department is considered fully staffed with 55 active members,” according to the “Incentive and Retention Plan” authored by Uanis and Schaumberg. Staffing hasn’t been at that level for almost 30 years, and those who are on the department can’t physically attend all the calls. In fact, only three members of the department responded to more than half of all the calls and only 12 members responded to 30% or more of the calls, according to the department’s statistics.

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Call volume, however, 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.

Being a firefighter requires graduating from a fire academy program, then maintaining and updating their skills by attending additional courses.

Uanis and Schaumberg gave a Power Point Presentation to the council during May on a potential solution to the staffing problems. They proposed:

1.   A quarterly stipend based on incident attendance percentage;

2.   An incentive stipend for attending advanced training courses;

3.   An incentive stipend for overnight call attendance

4.   Adoption of a Length of Service Awards Program (LOSAP).

There is a benefit to this for the township and the firefighters. Providing those four benefits to the volunteer department would actually cost less than the cost of staffing the department with 20 full time firefighters, which would be the minimum staffing level required to safely and efficiently staff the department. It would also cost less than other alternatives.

Uanis, Schaumberg, and Deputy Fire Chief Jim Hopkins sat down with TAPinto Berkeley Heights before Memorial Day weekend and discussed the Incentive and Retention Plan which they presented to the mayor and council.

This is not solely a Berkeley Heights problem, it’s nationwide – neighboring Pennsylvania is a good example – the state did a study and in “1970, there were 300,000 volunteer firefighters in the state, in 2018 there were 38,000,” said Uanis. Looking at the country overall, in 1986, the U.S. had a population of 240 million, there were 808,200 volunteer firefighters who answered 11,800,00 calls. By 2016, the population was 323 million people, and there were 729,000 volunteer firefighters who answered 35,320,000 calls.

There are laws being proposed that would compensate fire and rescue volunteers with tax incentives or property tax credits, but these are simply proposals. In the meantime, communities cope with manpower shortages in different ways. Some contract fire services from another department, some have a mixed paid/volunteer department and others adopt incentive and retention plans for volunteers.

Uanis said Springfield, which is similar to Berkeley Heights, which is similar to Berkeley Heights, in both size and population, has a minimally staffed paid fire department which costs taxpayers $3.3 million a year for salary and benefits. 

Princeton recently appropriated $800,000 to have four paid firefighters on staff during the day, Uanis said, and “will still rely on volunteers to show up, too,” said Schumberg.

Summit has a combination paid and volunteer fire department and maintains the same staffing around the clock. 

Glenn Ridge, which is 1.2 square miles and has 7,000 residents, contracted the Montclair Fire Department for fire protection for which it pays Montclair $768,000 a year, Uanis said.

“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.

Under their proposed plan, the incentive portion of the program would pay:

·         “Any member who attains a passing percentage of at least 30 percent of all calls, per quarter, will be entitled to a stipend of no more than $2,600 per quarter.

·         Any member who attains a passing percentage of at least 50% of all calls, per quarter, will be entitled to a stipend of no more than $3,200 per quarter.

·         Any member who attains a percentage of 50% of overnight calls, per quarter, will be entitled to an additional $300 per quarter.

·         Any member who attends and completes any major training courses, set forth by the Chief of Department, will receive an extra $1,000 per course in quarter #4 of that year.”

There is a provision that “no member shall receive more than $15,176 in a year,” according to the report.

These quarterly stipends would be very useful for college students, who could continue to volunteer as a firefighter during the summer and earn some money.

As for the retention portion of the plan, Uanis and Schumberg recommended participating in the state’s Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP), which has been available in New Jersey since 1998. They also recommended the township contribute the maximum of $1,150 a year for each person who meets the criteria set by the governing body. The LOSAP plan provides “tax-deferred income benefits to active volunteer members of an emergency service organization,” according to a publication from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.

Hopkins said, “The service this town gets from this fire department is really good. Our response time on average is less than 10 minutes.”

Schaumberg said, “I wish there was a metric for quality of service because this is up there. We have all the experience and training,” anyone needs.

Hopkins said, “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.”

If both programs were adopted, it would cost the township $291,250 per year, about $49 per taxpayer, according to their estimates. It costs residents of Springfield $568 per taxpayer to fund the combined paid and volunteer fire department.