FLEMINGTON, NJ – Fire Chief Scott Williamson will review with Borough Council a proposal for Hunterdon County to hire paid firefighters at its meeting this evening.

The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. in the old Historic Courthouse on Main Street here.

Plans by a committee established by the county’s Fire Chiefs Association to establish a paid firefighting force in Hunterdon have been overwhelmingly endorsed by the fire chiefs. The projected first-year cost of salaries under the plan, which would be paid by county taxes, is about $1.37 million. The total annual cost to the owner of a house assessed at $300,000 would be about $21.99, according to the Association.

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County Freeholder Rob Walton, who is also a volunteer firefighter in Hampton, said governing bodies in High Bridge, Califon, and both Lebanon Township and Lebanon Borough have already approved resolutions in support of the plan. Resolutions in support of the plan will be on Township Committee agendas in Delaware, Kingwood, and West Amwell in the next few weeks, he said.

So far, the only fire chiefs to oppose the plan are those in Raritan Township and East Amwell.

Other than providing some paid staff to supplement daytime firefighting coverage, Walton said the plan doesn’t change much else.

“The county operates as one fire company with 28 stations,” Walton said at a recent briefing on the proposal. “Because of task forces and mutual aid, all operate under the same command system ... This is no different.”

The plan would divide the county into three regions: west, east and south. The paid firefighters would be divided among two existing firehouses and a third location that would be established in the county’s hazmat building on Route 12 in Raritan Township.

The fire chief in each municipality would be “king of their castle,” Walton said. “They get to choose how this mutual aid company would be used.”

That could even include not using the paid staff at all.

“If the chief for some reason didn’t want to use it, they don’t have to. We can’t force it on a fire chief to use this in their municipality,” he explained. “ I don’t know why they wouldn’t use it, but certainly the chief gets to decide.”

The plan outlined by the Fire Chiefs Association recommends hiring 18 firefighters who would work an average of 42 hours a week. They’d be scheduled from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and would work alternating schedules: Three days for one week, then four days the next week.

County Fire coordinator Drew Stephens said the training required of volunteer and paid firefighters is the same. An initial 220 hours of training is mandatory; ongoing training is required after that.

Paid firefighters are suggested because, “Daytime staffing is not sufficient to meet the needs of our county,” Walton said.

In a borough such as Hampton, a minimum standard set by the National Fire Protection Association would require 10 people to respond to a fire call within 10 minutes, 80 percent of the time, Walton said.

In the county’s “more rural areas,” such as the townships, the standards require six members responding to fire call, within 14 minutes, 80 percent of the time, he said.

“The county is not meeting that on a regular basis,” Walton said.  

Currently, Hunterdon’s only paid firefighters are in Lambertville, where they are paid under the city’s Fire District tax.