RARITAN TWP., NJ – A plan to ask Hunterdon County to purchase fire trucks and hire paid firefighters is being met with some caution by township officials here.

Hunterdon County Fire Coordinator Drew Stephens has called for a press conference this evening to reveal details of the proposal.

In a press release, Stephens stated that a committee established by the county’s Fire Chiefs Association has worked “to resolve the staffing problems” of all the volunteer fire departments and companies in Hunterdon, beginning its effort more than a year ago.

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“A majority ... have realized that there is a manpower and staffing issue” during weekday hours for “most” of the county’s 28 fire departments, Stephens said.

The projected first-year cost of salaries under the plan, which would be paid by county taxes, is about $1.37 million, according to information released by county Freeholder Rob Walton. That would rise to $1.39 million in the second year of the plan.

Under the plan, 15 firefighters would start with an annual salary of $40,000 each; three senior firefighters would be paid $43,200 each; and a manager would be paid $46,656. Benefits for the employees are projected to cost $591,818 in the first year and $603,654 in the second year.

Operating costs, capital costs, rent and other equipment would raise the total estimated annual cost. Depending on where the firefighters would be stationed, the cost would be about $1.5 million annually.  

What would the plan cost a typical taxpayer? According to the projections developed by the Fire Chiefs Association committee, Hunterdon has a $20.8 billion ratable tax base, so the cost would be $21.99 per year on a house assessed at $300,000.

“I don’t see any urgency,” Raritan Township Mayor Karen Gilbert said this morning. “Our fire company has reservations.”

Gilbert said the township’s fire company “operates very well. They’re usually the first to respond to many fires beyond our municipality.” She said that while she’s told some smaller municipalities do have a problem attracting volunteers, “We don’t.”

In fact, Township Committee at its meeting this morning, approved Justin Brown, Michael Carman, Jeremy Hacker and Katherine Wetter as the newest township volunteer firefighters.

“We could always use some more awareness that we are a volunteer fire company,” Gilbert said. “A lot of residents don’t know that we’re all-volunteer.”

The Fire Chiefs Association plan calls for paid staff to augment the volunteers. Crews would be based in three regions. Two crews would be stationed in firehouses and a third could be headquartered at the county Hazmat building. The group believes that some of the jobs could be reserved for county residents, or that they could be given first preference for the jobs.

The committee that developed the plan considered other options, including having the county provide stipends to staff their fire stations several times a month; using existing firehouses with paid staff; using “per-diem” firefighters; and “do nothing and pray.”

After numerous meetings and research on how the rest of the state is coping with the same issues, a majority of county fire departments “agreed to make this proposal public and present it to the mayors and freeholders,” Stephens said.

Several municipalities have adopted resolutions in support of the proposal, he said.

The Fire Chiefs Association plan calls for “a willingness to discuss this in front of any group that will listen.” It plans presentations before the Freeholders and in each municipality with the local fire chief present.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect that tonight's meeting is not open to the general public.