MAPLEWOOD, NJ – South Orange and Maplewood will share a fire department starting in 2020 that will function as a civil service entity.
The Maplewood Mayor and Township Committee voted in favor of merging the departments during its township committee meeting this week, a move that the governing bodies in both municipalities say will save taxpayers money and provide stellar fire services to both towns.
Firefighters from both towns, who are mostly in the local firefighters’ unions, are concerned that merging the departments will decrease staff, which they say will negatively impact the effectiveness and timeliness of reporting to fire scenes.
“Here we are, a group of firefighters being told by our governing body that we should be able to do our jobs with less people,” said Maplewood Fire Department Deputy Chief Michael DeMartini during the Aug. 6 Maplewood Township Committee meeting.
DeMartini is also a member of FMBA Local 25.
“Our department is already understaffed by any recognizable standard,” DeMartini said.
The vote to support the merger came after more than a year of heated meetings and discussions between the governing bodies, municipal officials, FMBA heads and firefighters from the South Orange and Maplewood Fire Departments.
Although firefighters urged the township committee not to approve the merger Tuesday night because they weren't satisified with the proposed staffing numbers, the committee approved it because they were content with the changes laid out in the resolution for the new department.
"We put that information up at least a year ago," said Maplewood Mayor Vic De Luca about the minimum and maximum numbers of firefighters that will be assigned to work a shift. "We're putting that on the table and we'll discuss it. But I'm not negotiating numbers now."
Under the new department, a minimum of eight firefighters will be assigned to a shift in Maplewood and a minimum of six will work in South Orange, De Luca said. The maximum number will decrease from 18 to 17 between the two departments.
All three firehouses will remain open, which include Maplewood Fire Headquarters, Maplewood Fire Station 2, and the South Orange Fire Department, according to a resolution for the merger that the mayor the committee approved this week.
There will be 70 uniformed fire personnel with one fire chief. Seventeen personnel will be assigned to each platoon with a minimum of 14 on-duty. No major apparatus will be removed and no layoffs will occur, according to the resolution. Any staff reductions will be done through attrition.
The next step in the process is to form a joint meeting, which is a group of local officials that will oversee the merged department.
Although the department is being merged, firefighters and their FMBA local and state leaders still suggest that the staffing numbers are reconsidered.
"Our job as firefighters is to always be ready to jump into action when called upon," said South Orange Deputy Fire Chief Michael Commins. "Is the savings enough to keep a victim trapped for a few minutes longer."
Charles Lind, president of New Jersey Deputy Fire Chiefs Association, advised the Maplewood Township Committee to speak to other towns that have merged fire departments before finalizing its plans. Lind said the South Orange and Maplewood plan, specifically for staffing levels and operations, needs to be “better fine-tuned”.
Last month, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum spoke about ironing out the final details for the merger which include creating a Joint Meeting or lead agency for the new department.
De Luca said it's too premature to discuss staffing. He explained during a past Maplewood Township Committee meeting that Maplewood would handle administrative and financial duties under a merger and South Orange would handle personnel and human resources.