HIGH BRIDGE –Now that plans to establish a paid firefighting force in Hunterdon have been overwhelmingly endorsed by the county’s fire chiefs, efforts are underway to build additional support from the county’s 26 municipalities.

The projected first-year cost of salaries under the plan, which would be paid by county taxes, is about $1.37 million, TAPinto reported last week. The total annual cost to the owner of a house assessed at $300,000 would be about $21.99, according to the county's Fire Chiefs Association.

The idea has been discussed for years, county Fire Coordinator Drew Stephens said at a press conference held Thursday. But the 400-plus member county Fire Chiefs Association, which began in 1951, named a committee about a year ago to begin seriously researching the idea.

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Previously, the Fire Chiefs Association helped create the county’s fire school; helped establish the state’s first county-wide 911 emergency call system; developed task forces for tankers, fire-suppressing foam use and a large-diameter firefighter hose team to improve efficiency; and helped establish the county Fire Marshall’s office.

The county’s task forces have been deployed as far away as Essex County, Stephens said.

The plan for paid county firefighters has been endorsed by 26 of the county’s 28 Fire Chiefs, with only East Amwell and Raritan Township chiefs withholding support, according to Freeholder Rob Walton, who is also a volunteer firefighter.  

Stephens said the county’s fire departments responded to 3,543 alarms last year, typically averaging around seven calls a day.

“We’re just not keeping up with the times,” Stephens said. “At Tuesday at 10 in the morning, you’re lucky if you get three or four guys” responding to a fire call if there’s a working house fire. “That’s not even close to being enough.”

The plan proposed by the committee would base county-paid firefighters in three locations. Two would be in existing fire stations. The third would be located at the county’s hazardous materials headquarters on Route 12 in Raritan Township.

The committee was comprised of Walton, who was the mayor of Hampton and is a former president of its fire department; Stephens, who is a former High Bridge Fire Chief with 42 years’ experience and 26 years’ experience in law enforcement; John Phillips, a former Milford Fire Chief and former councilman who serves on the county’s Polytech board; Mark Ciarlariello, a North Plainfield Fire Department captain with a 37-year career in the fire service; Marc Strauss, a retired Clinton Township Police Department officer and former Annandale Hose Company Chief with 32 years in the fire service; Mark Brong, the Deputy Fire Chief in High Bridge with 12 years of firefighting experience; and former Flemington Fire Chief Bob Motzel.

Walton said three of Hunterdon’s 26 municipalities have already approved resolutions in support of the plan. Another 12 are thought to endose the plan and are expected to formalize that in resolutions pending on their upcoming agendas. That leaves 11 municipalities that are presently uncommitted.    

Walton said that by October, the Fire Chiefs Association will know to what the extent its plan is supported, and will then decide whether to present it to the county Freeholders for action.

Both Stephens and Walton stressed that the plan does not envision abandoning volunteer firefighters.

“By no means are we trying to get rid of the volunteers,” Stephens said. “ I’m a diehard volunteer.”

“We think this will allow the volunteer service in Hunterdon County to survive several more generations than it would otherwise,” Walton said. “By having the daytime help, volunteers will be able to sustain the service on weekends and at night. The volunteers are still your main response during the day.”

Hunterdon’s only paid firefighters now serve in Lambertville, Walton said, and are paid by city property owners under a Fire District tax.

Stay with TAPinto Flemington-Raritan for more on the paid firefighter proposal.