HAMILTON, NJ -- The state official who wrote the report aimed at helping Hamilton Township move forward on consolidation of the municipality’s eight fire districts is speaking out on changes made to his work that he believes drastically alters the findings he offered after 18 months of work.

In an extensive interview with TAPinto Hamilton/Robbinsville, Don Huber who wrote the “Fire District Dissolution Study” issued by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) in January 2017, said the “biggest obstacle is politics” in moving forward with fire district restructuring. 

A 26-year veteran of the Irvington Fire Department, Huber was initially appointed to serve in the  DCA Division of Fire Safety and Division of Local Government Services during the Administration of Governor Jon Corzine.  Huber’s service continued under Governor Chris Christie and lasted for just over 10 years.

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Offering a rehash of the reasons consolidation has been a goal for decades, Huber said the current structure, where nine separate fire districts operate under their own command structures, budgets, and training models.

The system is “archaic” Huber said, and he believed his assignment was to help improve it.

“It is time for a change and I went into it saying they need to have some models to digest and then decide for themselves.” 

Huber says that he spent approximately a year and a half researching and preparing the report. During that time, he met with numerous individuals and groups including Hamilton Township Mayor Kelly Yaede and representatives of the firefighters’ unions in a “brokered meeting.”  He added that he “thought at the time that there was going to be a good faith effort” from both sides to come to an agreement.  

However, after he wrote the draft report and submitted it to his superiors at the DCA for review, changes were made to it before it was officially released. 

“The State made significant changes that didn’t serve the best interests of the objective,” said Huber who added that he now believes that the “state had a preconceived agenda that could have a ripple effect” on other fire departments.

Adding intrigue to the situation is the fact that only the final report is publicly available since draft reports within state agencies cannot be obtained even through Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests.

Changes to three major areas were edited, according to Huber, between the draft of the report and its final release that “disturbed” him the most since he “didn’t see any justifications for the modifications.”

Included in these changes was a proposal to switch from the current “four shift” model to a “three shift model,” making firefighters responsible for working 56 hours per week instead of the national standard of 42 hours per week. Under the current scheduling firefighters work 24 hours consecutively, then, after being off for 72 hours, return to their station for another 24 hour shift. 

A three shift model reduces downtime between shifts to just 48 hours.

In addition to the toll the extra hours take on a firefighter, one union official said on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal from Township officials, the switch in scheduling also extends the work week by eight hours with no increase in pay.

“We are the first responders we are because of the continuous rigorous training we go through on every shift, constantly perfecting our craft so that we can respond to any time to any emergency,” the more than 15 year veteran of the job said. “Increasing our workload further would wreak havoc on our physical and mental health.”

The second change that Huber took exception with was the expectation included in the altered report that the firefighters should accept a consolidation of the districts and work for the newly combined entity without a previously agreed upon collective bargaining agreement.

“You can’t have an agreement when you don’t know what the terms and conditions are that you’re agreeing to,” said Huber.  

Finally, Huber said that the State “arbitrarily took out $1 million and made additional cuts in the proposed budget that would have had damaging effects,”  said Huber. “What disturbed me the most is that the modification in the report didn’t seem to be justified.

“We have long suspected that the report, as it was presented to us and the public is not what it was portrayed to be, and now we know we were right,” the union official said. “It seems that an expert was asked to do a job, and he did it. When his expertise didn’t match the narrative Mayor Yaede and the State of NJ were looking for his years of experience were disregarded, and still we remain a fire department unfortunately unable to work to its highest potential.”

A spokeswoman for the State agency said that "DCA evaluates all submissions and data in crafting a final report or decision from the Department. Beyond that, we cannot comment on internal deliberations"

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