By Ron Leir
Frustrated by what it perceives as Harrison’s failure to improve its first-response capability to fires there, the Town of Kearny is sounding an alarm of its own.
Last Tuesday night, May 14, Kearny’s governing body voted to cut back its mutual aid response to Harrison by sending only two fire companies to assist the Harrison Fire Department – one less than Kearny has been providing since a backdraft at a March 10 fire on Frank E. Rodgers Blvd. North injured five Jersey City firefighters who were assisting.
Kearny officials will reassess its position on June 30 and could further reduce its response level if Harrison’s fire staffing levels reflect no change.
And it’s possible that Kearny may next look to pull the plug on providing ambulance services to Harrison.
Asked for reaction, Harrison Fire Director Harold Stahl said: “Kearny has to do what Kearny has to do. We’ll take a look at it when it happens. I have to take the situation as it’s presented to me and overcome, somehow.”
Kearny Mayor Alberto Santos – a vocal proponent of the new policy – said the circumstances of the March 10 fire persuaded local officials that “our guys weren’t safe” when called to assist at fires where “delayed firefighting tactics” could imperil their lives.
Aside from that, Santos said, sending three Kearny fire companies for Harrison mutual aid leaves only two companies in town to fight fires in Kearny, and thereby “creating a coverage gap” prompting “serious safety concerns” for the protection of local property owners.
Kearny may be called on for help even more, suggested Kearny Fire Chief Steven Dyl, because lately, “East Newark [Volunteer Fire Department] wasn’t notified to respond.” When asked later if East Newark was out of the loop, Stahl said: “No, it was an oversight at the last fire [at 610 Frank E. Rodgers Blvd. North] not calling them.” Normally, he said, “if there is a working fire, if there is smoke showing, we request them to send an engine.”
While Kearny is providing more coverage for its neighbor, Santos said, it’s also costing the town more in overtime to do so.
“I don’t think we can morally or legally say we’re not going [to provide mutual aid] to Harrison,” Santos said, “but not at the exposure of risk to our residents.”
Councilwoman Eileen Eckel, who chairs the council’s Fire Committee, echoed the mayor’s displeasure, saying: “We have stepped up to provide protection. [Now], the leadership in Harrison needs to take a look at its fire[fighting] resources.”
Moreover noted Councilwoman Carol Jean Doyle, something needs to be done soon since “we’re going into [summer] vacation period,” when, presumably, Harrison could be challenged to maintain minimum staffing levels.
And, Doyle added, even if Harrison manages to snag federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Firefighter and Emergency Response) grant money to hire more firefighters, “it would still take time for Fire Academy training” before those new personnel would be available.
But really, Santos said, if anyone’s to blame for the coverage gap, it’s the state Division of Local Government Services. As Harrison’s fiscal monitor, the Division has “taken credit” for getting Harrison to chop its municipal police and fire budgets, accounting for a personnel reduction in both departments.
“The state’s balancing the budget on our backs,” griped Councilwoman Laura Cifelli-Pettigrew. “We should not be working this hard to solve a problem we didn’t create.”
Santos said the state has, in the recent past, talked up the merits of consolidated municipal fire departments but asserted that, “I’m an agnostic when it comes to regionalization. You’ve got to prove to me that it works. I don’t understand how you can have a negotiation [to combine Harrison and Kearny Fire Departments] where there is an intent [by the state] to shift much of the cost to us.”
There are other options that Harrison can pursue, the mayor said, such as “contracting with Newark or Jersey City or regionalizing” for additional fire protection services.
Kearny, meanwhile, Santos said, has its own difficulties holding the line on diminishing fire resources. “We’re not where we were a year ago but not the 40% reduction that Harrison has experienced.”
In fact, Santos said, the town has asked for and received a new state-certified appointment for firefighter. However, the list of 30 names supplied by the state has been “whittled down very quickly to four and may go down even further,” the mayor said, “either because people were no longer interested or because they didn’t meet the eligibility requirements.”
Residents can likely expect to see some new firefighters by “early or late autumn,” Santos said, and there are also plans to hire “15 to 22” part-time civilian fire dispatchers who would work in shifts around the clock, he added.