By Ron Leir
The federal government has rejected an application by Harrison for funding to hire additional firefighters but the town is renewing its bid – and this time, it’s asking for a lot more.
Harrison Fire Director Harold Stahl said the town got word last month that it had been turned down in its effort to get a $2.1 million in SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant to pay salaries and benefits for 12 new firefighters for two years.
However, Harrison derived some consolation from being awarded about $35,000 from another federal firefighter funding source to replace two-decade-old emergency rescue equipment. “Our men just completed four days of training with the new gear,” Stahl said. (More details about that later.)
Stahl said the feds denied the town’s SAFER request because, even had they granted it, the extra personnel still would’ve left Harrison shorthanded by federal fire protection standards: ensuring that a minimum of 15 firefighters would be “on the ground” 90% of the time to respond to a first alarm.
Stahl declined to make available a copy of the denial explanation sent to the town by the feds on the grounds he didn’t want to compromise the town’s position.
The town could have asked for more, Stahl said, “but we went conservative,” figuring it would have a better chance of snagging some of the federal pie split up among paid and volunteer fire departments around the country.
Now, having become more savvy in the process, Stahl said local department experts “crunched the numbers” and the department reapplied to the SAFER grant program – this time for about $5.7 million – enough to pay salaries and benefits for 36 additional fire personnel during a two-year period to beef up the 29-member department. “We feel 36 more is what it will take to get us to the recommended minimum,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Kearny Fire Department – which has met with two previous SAFER denials, first for four, then eight additional firefighters – is now deploying a strategy similar to Harrison’s by asking for $1.9 million to cover the hiring of 15 additional fire personnel for two years, to supplement the existing complement of 83, according to Fire Chief Steven Dyl. Even if the application is successful, however, it would still leave the department below its allowable ordinance strength of 102, he noted.
Dyl joined other fire chiefs in the region in publicly questioning Harrison’s first-response firefighting resource capabilities and its alleged over-reliance on mutual aid, in the wake of a March 10 multi-alarm fire in the 600 block of Frank E. Rodgers Blvd. North that left 25 residents homeless and injured five Jersey City firefighters.
Kearny’s governing body – at the behest of Mayor Alberto Santos – voted in May to reduce its initial mutual aid response to Harrison, from three to two fire companies, saying it wanted to minimize the risk of endangering its firefighters and to cut down on overtime costs.
Santos said the town would look to cut back even more if it felt the perceived risk to its fire personnel persisted but, so far, that threat hasn’t yet materialized.
Meanwhile, Harrison is thankful for its Assistance to Firefighters grant, secured through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Department of Homeland Security (which also provides SAFER grants), allowing the acquisition of rescue products from ESI Equipment Co. of Montgomeryville, Pa.
Devices like a circle/flat cutter/spreader capable of cutting out windshields, an hydraulic 1,000 PSI ram designed to push in dashboards and control panels and a heavy duty “come a long” winch (a ratchet-type tool with chain attachment) that can pull off a door or steering wheel, will all be helpful in freeing a driver from a smashed vehicle, as will “hi lo stabilizer jacks” that can raise and steady a vehicle “in a matter of minutes” prior to extricating occupants, Stahl said.
And another weapon the department will now have in its arsenal, Stahl added, is a light-weight 10,000 PSI hydraulic power pack designed to operate two rescue tools at the same time.