RARITAN TWP., NJ – Township Committee was given a first-hand account Tuesday night of a plan by the county’s Fire Chiefs Association to introduce paid firefighters to Hunterdon to augment volunteers during daytime hours.
But before it heard the account, the Committee discussed the plan in a closed-door session that it explained as “contract negotiations.” Committeeman Mike Mangin, who is a volunteer firefighter, recused himself from the executive session, as he does on all matters involving the fire company.
The plan, which could cost $1.5 million annually, was developed to meet a need, Freeholder Rob Walton told officials. He said the annual cost to the owner of a house assessed at $300,000 would typically be about $21.99.
The plan for paid county firefighters has been endorsed by 26 of the county’s 28 Fire Chiefs and 14 Hunterdon municipalities have passed resolutions in favor of the concept.
Walton wasn’t speaking in his role as a freeholder, but as a volunteer firefighter and former president of the Hampton fire department.
“What is the problem?” Walton asked. “Fewer people working in Hunterdon County. Fewer people willing to volunteer for anything, including, especially, going into a burning building.”
Recruiting efforts and incentive programs such as LOSAP haven’t worked, Walton said. “The short answer is there simply aren’t enough people around during the day to properly staff daytime fire calls.”
Walton cited statistics that show with 588 people per square mile, Raritan Township falls into the “suburban” category as designated by the National Fire Protection Association. Its guidelines state that township firefighters should be on the scene of a fire with 10 people, within 10 minutes, 80 percent of the time.
“Nearly every fire company in Hunterdon County does not meet that standard, Raritan Township included,” Walton said. That’s why he said county Fire Chiefs propose the plan to have paid staff augment volunteers from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The two Fire Chief holdouts are East Amwell and Raritan Township.
Walton called the proposal a “grass roots effort led by volunteer responders. The volunteers came up with this. Everybody recognizes that there’s a problem.”
How bad is the problem? That depends on whom you ask.
Walton reported that County Communications data shows that the township had 240 emergency weekday calls last year between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Of those calls, there was response to 59 of them in less than 10 minutes.
“That’s damn good response time,” the Freeholder said.
But on 85 of the calls, the response ranged between 10 and 14 minutes, and 96 calls were answered in more than 14 minutes, according to the data. That 40 percent of the calls required a response time of longer than 14 minutes is “not a knock against these guys,” Walton said. “It’s happening all across Hunterdon.”
“Obviously there are errors” with 911 data, Raritan Township Deputy Fire Chief Keith Paradiso said. “There are times that they are accurate, but there is also human error, computer error, there’s a lot of things going on, so that data can’t always be 100 percent correct.”
Former Raritan Township Fire Chief Steve Wetter, who served three years in that role, said, “We averaged about 10 to 12 minutes response time.
“Do we have 10 people on daytime calls?” he asked. “Sometimes yes. I couldn’t say it was 80 percent of the time, no. Probably not.”
Wetter said that by using mutual aid from nearby departments, “We might have 10 ...I don’t have those numbers.”
Frances Gavigan, an East Amwell resident, told the Committee, “I don’t see how adding another layer of bureaucracy and pension payments” is the solution to “what may be a fairly local problem.” She said there was “insufficient data to justify” paid staff “when a small pool of per diems” staff might fill the gap.
Mayor Karen Gilbert cut short Gavigan’s comment, citing the Committee’s busy agenda and ending the 30-minute discussion that Walton began.
Township Committee took no action on Walton’s request that it approve a resolution in favor of paid firefighters.
In an interview after the meeting, Gilbert said, “We will continue to address and discuss” the need for paid firefighters.
Meanwhile, the township fire company is actively seeking new volunteers. It is circulating posters to promote its effort and is expected to promote the fire company at the township’s Community Day on Saturday.