BOONTON, NJ - The call to duty Saturday for 50 Somerville volunteer firefighters wasn’t about responding to an alarm or a training drill. It was driving the half hour to the New Jersey Firemen’s Home here to host a memorable outing for those who served before them.
A caravan of Somerville’s “bravest” gave up a good portion of their day to hold a barbecue picnic and share good times with residents at the Firemen’s Home, the only licensed healthcare facility in the state dedicated to the men and women of the New Jersey fire service. Two former Somerville firefighters, Charles Karbowski and Alvin Falk, now reside here.
Established in 1898 and located on the spacious grounds of the former Lathrop estate, the Firemen’s Home provides long term care and residential health services to 68 retired paid and volunteer firefighters from each of the state’s 21 counties.
“We never want to forget these guys. Just being with them, especially our two men from Somerville, makes them realize that they are still a part of us,” said Lincoln Hose Engine 4 member and former department chief Pat Weston, one of the event’s organizers.
“We try to get up here every few weeks to take Charlie and Alvin out to lunch or dinner, but the idea to do something like this barbeque for all the residents started over a cup of coffee and grew from there,” added Weston.
Each of Somerville‘s four companies; Central Hook and Ladder Truck 1; Lincoln Hose Engine 4; West End Hose Engine 3 and Engine Company 1 had members attending the picnic. The companies came together as a department in the planning process and covered the event’s costs through a car wash fundraiser and individual contributions.
For Karbowski and Falk, their stays here allow them independent living under the umbrella of 24-hour, seven day-a-week medical, nursing, therapy, dietary and recreational services. Both said that the nursing care, setting and recreational opportunities give them security and a comfort level to their daily living experiences.
“It’s beautiful here, the care, the food, the exercise we get,” said Karbowski, a resident for the past four years. “And, today is something special. This picnic means a lot, I’m seeing guys from Somerville today that I haven’t seen for a long time.”
Falk, a relative newcomer having come here in January, echoed Karbowski’s comments. “Of all the places like this to go to, this has to be one of the best in the country,” he said, rating his overall experience here as “pretty damned good.” He recently has taken advantage of the exercise program and looks forward to an upcoming trip to see a Yankee game.
According the Firemen’s Home Recreation Director Monica Story, a number of departments statewide commit time and resources to host outings such as today’s barbecue for the residents. “We get tons of loyal support from departments from throughout the state.” she said. “Just like Somerville here today, they all treat these guys like family.”
Other activities available to the residents on a regular basis include: movies, concerts, board games, and field trips. Management oversight is provided by a 21-member Board of Governors, with one member from each county. Somerset’s representative is Tom Sutphen, who comes from generations of Central Hook and Ladder Truck 1 firefighters.
Licensed and inspected by the state, the cost of living at the Home is $850 a month per resident. According to Sutphen, the monies are raised by a 2 percent revenue tax on out-of-state insurance companies doing business here, and included in the state budget.
Along with sharing in abundant food, music and the telling of great stories about “the way things used to be,” the Somerville contingent plans to return soon to construct wheelchair accessible garden beds that the residents can put to good use this fall and next spring.
Rich O’Neill, former West End Hose Engine 3 chief and now director of the Somerville Firemen’s Museum, made the noisy, open-cab effort to drive the 30 miles to Boonton in the department’s “retired” 1942 Mack pumper. At the end of the afternoon, he reflected not only on his upcoming ride back to Somerville, but on the meaning of the day.
“For all of us here today, we came to give a little back,” said O’Neill. “No matter how you look at it, we are all brothers.”