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A rescue plan for better fire protection

Photo by Ron Leir A demolition crew was still at work at the scene of the March 10 fire at Frank E. Rodgers Blvd. North and Davis St.

Photo by Ron Leir
A demolition crew was still at work at the scene of the March 10 fire at Frank E. Rodgers Blvd. North and Davis St.

 

By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent

HARRISON –

The Town of Harrison has signed a new labor contract with the local Fireman’s Mutual Benevolent Association but perhaps even more important is a side agreement that will improve the Harrison Fire Department (HFD)’s firstresponse efficiency.

A five-alarm fire March 10 at Frank E. Rodgers Blvd. North and Davis St., that triggered a backdraft injuring five members of the Jersey City Fire Dept. who were part of the mutual aid response, ignited serious concerns among fire chiefs in Hudson County over whether the HFD had enough resources to deliver an adequate level of firefighting service, with proper supervision, as the first units responding to a fire in town.

At the March 10 fire – which displaced 17 residents and wrecked two eateries and a worship hall – and at another local fire about one week prior, the HFD had to rely on neighboring East Newark fire volunteers to supply a ladder truck, reportedly because the department didn’t have enough personnel to staff its truck.

But union and town leaders say that the new agreement, signed by both sides March 29, should help defuse these worries because it proposes the promotion of four firefighters to lieutenant, which, in turn, will ensure the HFD enough coverage to ride an engine and ladder truck on a first-response to a fire.

The promotions of Henry Zienowicz, David Prina, Joseph Scaperotta and Joseph Faugno from a certified state Civil Service list – expected to be confirmed by action of the mayor and Town Council this month – would give the HFD a total of eight lieutenants, which, together with an existing five captains (one assigned to administrative duties), will allow the HFD to staff at least one tour commander, two lieutenants and four firefighters per shift – the minimum staffing for one engine and one truck.

To ease the town’s financial burden, the union has agreed to defer the pay raises for those promoted (about $13,300 a year more in base pay per man) for 12 months from the day of the promotions.

Additionally, for the balance of 2013, if the town needs to call in additional personnel for overtime duty, it can give that extra compensation as half straight time and half compensatory time, on the condition that the “comp” time can only be taken when it won’t leave the HFD short.

“So we’re putting the ladder truck into service at a substantially less price,” said Town Attorney Paul Zarbetski.

Even with the new labor contract – which, according to FMBA President Prina, was overwhelmingly ratified by the union membership – the town is getting a break.

The old contract expired Dec. 31, 2011, and both sides agreed to a four-year extension but for the first year – 2012 – there will be no pay raise.

For 2013 and 2014, the town will provide a 1.5% increase each year and, for 2015, it will grant a 2% hike.

So, over the life of the contract, top annual pay for firefighter will rise from the current rate of $83,530 to $87,776; top pay for lieutenant will go from the current $95,833 to $100,705; and top pay for captain will climb from the current $108,137 to $113,634, according to calculations by Zarbetski and Robert Murray, the town’s labor attorney.

In a concession to the town, the FMBA accepted a new contractual provision that prevents its members from “banking” any more unused vacation days beyond those already accumulated as of March 18, 2013. Murray and Zarbetski said that capping members’ cumulative unused vacation time will save the town from paying out potentially substantial cash when a longtime FMBA member retires.

Also, the FMBA agreed to switch from its current Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield health care provider to the state health care benefits plan – something that Gov. Chris Christie’s administration has been pushing for statewide, according to Murray.

While the town has made no commitment to new hirings, Prina said that during negotiations, “the mayor (Ray McDonough) promised he would rebuild the Fire Department (now at 29 employees), in anticipation of the new redevelopment coming on line. My feeling is that two years from now, we’ll be back on track.”

In the meantime, the town is proceeding with what Murray described as “informal conversations” with police union representatives on extending their labor contract. “We’re hopeful we can continue that informal dialogue,” he said.

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