Fire roster beefed up but still shortstaffed

By Ron Leir 

Observer Correspondent 

KEARNY –

Seven additional firefighters are being hired by Kearny but, because of upcoming retirements, it will still leave the Fire Department short of the recommended number of personnel, Fire Chief Steven Dyl said.

The Kearny Town Council voted last Tuesday to authorize the new additions to the KFD payroll, effective Feb. 23, pending approval by the newly assigned state fiscal monitor Terry Reidy, a former city manager of Montclair and Asbury Park. He replaced monitor Steve Pannella on Jan. 29.

In November 2014, the council green-lighted hiring up to 12 firefighters with the hopeful expectation, at the time, that the town would be successful with its application for federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response) funding which pays for two years’ salaries and benefits.

But the town never got the funding so it put off the hirings.

Meanwhile, as overtime costs soared, the town felt it had no choice but to go ahead with some hirings to partially replenish the gap in the fire personnel ranks.

It wasn’t easy. “We started out with 100 [applicants] and we ended up with seven,” Dyl said.

Looking down the road, it won’t get any easier since nine members of the department – mostly superior officers – have filed pension applications with two more possible, according to Dyl.

The department’s Table of Organization calls for up to 102 employees and currently there are 82 aboard. The seven new hires will push that total up to 89 but when the nine retirees are gone, the department will be down to 80 and if the two others contemplating retirement leave, that will bring the number down to 78, Dyl said.

At last week’s meeting, Councilwoman Eileen Eckel, liaison to the KFD, declared that, “We are looking to hire even more [firefighters}” as more department members leave but she didn’t say how many more or when it would happen.

Mayor Alberto Santos, noting that six of the new hires were Kearny residents (the other is from Newark), said that local residency “reflects what we wanted to do for the past two years,” after the town’s labor attorney Fredrick Danser negotiated with the NAACP an amended federal consent decree on public safety hirings.

That amendment contracted the candidate pool area, from Kearny and Essex County, to Kearny and Newark, on the presumption that the prior arrangement “was not giving a fair opportunity to Kearny residents,” he said.

And the latest results show that “it’s working,” the mayor added.

Noting the presence of two of the new hires, Steven Yerkes and James Corbett Jr., in the council chambers, Santos congratulated them and said: “They need you yesterday. … We have a large local area to protect and that puts a tremendous strain on our Fire Department.”

Since a good portion of the KFD’s veteran members have been departing in recent years, Santos told the recruits that they and their colleagues “will be the core of the group” representing the department’s future.

Two of the rookies – Corbett and Kyle Plaugic – have local police legacies: Corbett is the son of retired Kearny Dep. Police Chief James Corbett and Plaugic’s dad, John Plaugic, is currently serving as a detective with the KPD.

Steven Yerkes, a Kearny resident, previously worked as a mechanic for a private firm.

James Corbett Jr., a Kearny resident, has served as an investigator for the New Jersey Dept. of Health. He has a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in criminal justice and sociology.

Kyle Plaugic, a Kearny resident who holds a degree in business administration from Caldwell University, has worked as a financial analyst for a private company. His late grandfather was a member of the Newark Fire Department.

Joseph Socci, who lives in Kearny, has worked as an assistant rental manager for Penske Truck Leasing in Jersey City. He has a B.A. degree in communications from the University of Albany.

Donald Alexander, a Newark resident, is a graduate of Bishop George Ahr High School, Edison, and has worked as a private security officer.

John Digrivina, of Kearny, has attended classes at Essex County College and Hawaii Pacific University. He has worked as a painter.

Jeffrey Paredes, a Kearny resident, has worked as a computer technician and fitness instructor. He has attended classes at Essex County College and the County College of Morris.

The recruits are scheduled to begin their fire training March 22 at the Essex County Police Academy building and, upon successful completion, should be ready for duty in Kearny “by the end of June or beginning of July,” Dyl said.

During their academy tenure, the rookies’ starting pay will be $33,000, plus benefits.

The Observer Staff