By Ron Leir
It may appear that surrounding communities are ganging up against Harrison but Jersey City Fire Chief Darren Rivers says Mayor Ray McDonough shouldn’t take it personally.
It’s simply a matter of protecting lives and property, says Rivers, who serves as head of the Hudson County Fire Chiefs Association.
On April 4, Rivers convened a meeting of fire chiefs, along with fire directors and business administrators from its members – Kearny, Jersey City, Bayonne, Hoboken and North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue – to voice concerns about Harrison mutual aid.
The action comes on the heels of a March 10 fivealarm fire that struck several buildings in the 600 block buildings in the 600 block of Frank E. Rodgers Blvd. and a residential building on Davis St., displacing 17 residents and triggering a “backdraft” that injured five members of the Jersey City Fire Department.
At the meeting, the chiefs said that as a result of the way the fire was fought, they had concerns about these issues:
• “increased risk to firefighter safety”
• “command and control” of the fire scene
• “Harrison resource efficiency and the ability to meet the demands of emergencies of any consequences” and
• “over-dependence upon mutual aid and the cost and liability impacts which confront responding agencies.”
Asked why Harrison representatives weren’t invited to the meeting, Rivers said: “Harrison doesn’t have a fire chief.”
The town does, however, employ a fire director – Harold Stahl – who previously served as a longtime fire chief in Rahway.
River said he expects Harrison to get the chiefs’ message through a mayor-to-mayor exchange.
“There’s no way that we, as fire chiefs, can go to another municipality to demand changes,” Rivers said. Any communication of that type has to go through the proper channels, he said, and that communication would take place by “bringing mayors into the loop.”
Kearny Mayor Alberto Santos, already in the loop, is convinced that Harrison’s Fire Department is “understaffed” and is, therefore, “subjecting firefighters in other communities, including Kearny, to added risk in addition to exposing Harrison property owners to risk.”
“It’s clear that Harrison’s current staffing, where they have six or seven firefighter personnel to respond, is not an adequate number,” Santos said. “And Harrison has to address that.”
From the chiefs’ perspective, it all boils down, essentially, to the size of the Harrison Fire Department and its first-response capability. “We are concerned about the [firefighter] cuts Harrison has instituted and the town’s overdependence on mutual aid,” Rivers said.
McDonough countered that, “For the past two and a half years, we ran with [the same numbers of firefighters] as we had at the Rodgers Blvd. fire and all during that time, we heard no complaints. Why after two and a half years is it coming to this?”
As for overreliance on outside aid, McDonough said the figures show otherwise. In 2012, he said, Harrison requested mutual aid from other towns in the county 14 times but responded to fires in other towns 44 times. So far this year, Harrison has asked for help four times but has provided mutual aid 14 times.
In any event, Rivers said the National Fire Protection Association – a nonprofit group that advocates for fire prevention and fire safety standards – recommends having at least 15 firefighters available as a first response to a “structure fire,” with some personnel directed to fight the fire while others are assigned to ventilate the roof to prevent a backdraft.
“Without that ventilation, your attack lines are in jeopardy,” Rivers said.
At the March 10 fire, questions also arose about whether East Newark fire volunteers – who were called in with their ladder truck to help – couldn’t properly communicate with Harrison’s fire tour commander, had trouble venting the roof of the building on fire, and allowed some of its members to work without wearing proper gear.
East Newark Mayor Joseph Smith said that he and Councilmen Charles Tighe and Jose Silva, all members of the borough fire committee, quizzed the borough’s volunteer fire officers last week about what happened.
Smith said the volunteers, equipped with four hand-held radios “on the same frequency as Harrison,” were told that “their job was to stop the fire from going down [Davis St.] … [and] were instructed to save the house behind [the Rodgers Blvd. building where the fire originated] which was attached to the house.”
At some point, Smith said, the three volunteers up on the roof of the house were redirected to the roof of the Rodgers Blvd. building which contained two adjoining restaurants on the ground floor. “They went around [opening] vent caps, from where the [restaurant kitchen] exhaust goes,” he said. “Smoke was coming out of those.” But Smith said the volunteers had difficulty venting the roof because their saw was reportedly inadequate to the task.
As they were struggling with the venting process, “that’s when the explosion [backdraft] occurred,” Smith said. For the three volunteers up there, “it was like riding a wave. They jumped onto the other roof.”
Smith said that images later appearing on YouTube showing what appeared to be volunteer firefighters not wearing protective gear were former East Newark Volunteer Fire Department members who, he said, may have shown up, intending to march in the annual St. Patrick’s Parade, but ended up at the fire scene offering assistance.
“Our [current volunteer] chief acknowledged they should’ve been taken away from the scene,” Smith said.
Reacting to questions raised about how East Newark volunteers vented a roof at a Feb. 25 fire on Warren St. in Harrison, Smith said the volunteers “chopped a hole exactly where they were told [by the Harrison fire commander].”
In general, Smith said, the biggest issue volunteers have to deal with is “you don’t have continuity, like you do for a paid department” – not always working side by side with the same personnel.
Looking ahead, Rivers said Jersey City Fire Department – as other departments – will continue to respond to mutual aid requests from Harrison and elsewhere in the county but to minimize risk, it will respond with a “task force” of two engines, a ladder, battalion chief and safety officer.
Santos said Kearny, too, will honor Harrison’s calls for help but “if there’s no human life at risk, there will be very serious questioning over whether mutual aid personnel should put themselves at risk to an inadequate first response.”
In Harrison, meanwhile, Stahl said the Fire Department has applied for $2.2 million in federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response) grant funding which would cover two years’ payments for salaries and benefits for 12 additional Harrison firefighters. After two years, the town would have to pick up the cost.