PATERSON, NJ - Alexander Hamilton may have given life to Paterson back in 1792 but, based on the accolades bestowed upon him Monday, it’s Bill Pascrell, Jr. that has been the City’s heartbeat during a nearly 60-year career in public service.
With more than 200 firefighters, family, and long-time supporters of the venerable statesman in attendance, the Paterson Fire Department Headquarters, a $4.5 state of the art facility built with federal dollars he secured, was renamed in Pascrell’s honor, a lasting symbol, several speakers would say, of his continued efforts on behalf of firefighters, volunteer and professional, across the nation.
Following an introduction from Mayor Andre Sayegh in which he referred to Pascrell as a “mentor,” Paterson Fire Chief Brian McDermott would kick-off a cavalcade of speakers to heap praise on Paterson’s former mayor who has served as the city’s representative in Congress since 1997.
“Bill Pascrell is a champion of all first responders,” McDermott would say, reminding the audience that before he was elected there were no federal dollars being distributed to the fire service. Referring to the apparatus parked outside the building, and firefighters scattered throughout, as the “fruits of (Pascrell’s) labor,” McDermott added that his support means much more than that.
With crews responding to a house fire on Fair Street earlier in the day, McDermott said, it became evident that it wasn’t possible to count those Pascrell’s efforts have impacted.
“There are people all over the country that don’t know you but can thank you for their lives.”
From his earliest days in Congress Pascrell proved to be an advocate for firefighters across the nation, first authoring and introducing the FIRE Act in 1998, a groundbreaking piece of legislation authorizing federal support for the fire services to purchase equipment, provide training and hire personnel.
Signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000, Pascrell’s work led to the creation of the Assistance for Firefighters Grant Program, and just three years later the passage of the SAFER Act, helping maintain safe staffing levels, subsequently signed into law by President Bush. Combined, these programs have allocated more than $12.5 billion to local fire departments, including more than $29 million for Paterson.
Taking his spot back at the podium to introduce Paterson City Council President Martiza Davila, Sayegh would acknowledge that while the two don’t always agree on policy they, along with the eight other members of the legislative body, were unanimous in support of the resolution authorizing the ceremony.
Calling him “Paterson’s hardest working and most vocal fighter” Davila praised Pascrell for dedicating himself to making sure that the community he has called home all of his life is afforded the same services and protection as others across the country.
“This building is just small proof of the great resources he has been able to secure in Congress for Paterson, and our nation’s bravest men and women.”
For his part, Freeholder Assad Ahkter, a former 11-year veteran of Pascrell’s staff, said that while he is widely considered the “father of firefighting,” it is the life lessons that he’s imparted on so many that will continue to impact lives.
“Never forget where you come from, when you give your word you keep it, and work for everyone, not just those that vote for you,” are the philosophies by which Pascrell has conducted himself while in service to the community, Akhter said.
Paterson’s trio of legislators, Senator Nellie Pou, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, and Assemblyman Bemjie Wimberly would also take their places in acknowledging the efforts of Pascrell, with Pou saying that all that he has accomplished is “considered, known, and never forgotten.”
Several of Pascrell’s House colleagues, including Representatives Albio Sires (D-NJ) and Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) made the trip to New Jersey’s 9th District while Senator Robert Menendez offered that “if you’re in a fight in Washington you want the Congressman from Paterson in your corner.”
Comparing his role as the batting coach for the Congressional Democrats' baseball team to his approach to fighting for his district, Representative Ron Klink (D-PA) said that Pascrell “always has his feet planted firmly on the ground, keeps his eye on the ball, and always keeps his swing level.” Because of that, Klink concluded, “we all benefit.”
With the politician’s speeches over it was the firefighters that had gathered who had their chance at the microphone, with Eddie Donnelly, President of the New Jersey FMBA, starting by saying that any number of buildings can bear the congressman’s name.
“Hero and champion are not words we throw around lightly,” the leader of the 5,000 member strong union said. “Bill Pascrell is our hero, he is our champion.”
Donnelly was followed by State Fire Marshal Rich Mitkutsky, who also served as vice president of the NJ FMBA.
“We have met our guardian angel,” Mikutsky said. “His name is Bill Pascrell.”
Following the delivery of similar sentiments from John Colucci, president of New Jersey Career Fire Chiefs Association, was Kyle Hughes, President of FMBA Local 2, the union representing Paterson’s rank and fire firefighters.
“You are the firefighter’s champion,” Hughes said, a prelude for a special presentation to come. “You roll up your sleeves and don’t mince your words, in true New Jersey fashion.”
“We take an oath when we decide to become firefighters, that we will protect life and property by whatever means necessary,” Hughes continued. “Your passion, your strength, your commitment has undoubtedly led to countless lives being saved.”
“This firehouse will bear your name, but make no mistake, you are welcome in any firehouse across the country,” he concluded before the well-recognized theme song from Rocky began to blare over the speakers and Hughes presented Pascrell with a championship belt.
Following an emotional introduction from the oldest of his three sons Pascrell would finally have his time to speak, spending the majority of it returning the praise all were there to give him, first to his family, then to those that have, and continue to, worked for him, and, finally, to the firefighters gathered.
“I am proud to call all of you my brothers and sisters,” Pascrell said.
Pulling out the copy of the Constitution he carries in one pocket, and the list of New Jersey residents killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Pascrell said both serve as reminders of his responsibility to “all the people.”
“I couldn’t hang with a better group of guys and gals than the Paterson Fire Department,” Pascrell said before concluding with a vow that his work isn’t over.
“I will not back away.”
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