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Public safety may take a hit

Harrison NJ Headquarters

By Ron Leir |

HARRISON -

Who’ll be the last man standing?

That must be what the public servants of Harrison are sensing now that the town has sent a new layoff plan to the state Civil Service Commission.

Following fast on the heels of last year’s reduction of 62 jobs (including 10 firefighter retirements) – via a combination of economic layoffs and attrition — Harrison now proposes to slash 11 jobs in the Fire Department and eight in the Police Department to try to avoid a $1.5 million deficit in the 2011 municipal budget.

And, for good measure, the town is moving to privatize its municipal ambulance service, taking that operation out of the hands of the Fire Department.

Town Attorney Paul Zarbetski said that he and Robert Murray, the town’s labor counsel, have talked to three private ambulance companies and one public entity – none of which he would name – “to see how they could help us privatize (with) 24/7 coverage.”

Next step, he said, is for the town to circulate Requests for Proposals for providing ambulance service to Harrison and to East Newark, which currently comes under Harrison’s municipal ambulance coverage.

Zarbetski said the plan is to have the outside service in place “as of July 1, which is the anticipated date of the layoffs.”

He said the town would require the service provider to have fully qualified EMTs staff the ambulance.

“Right now,” Zarbetski said, “it costs us over $1 million to staff an ambulance with a town firefighter. By using a civilian, it would be a fraction of the cost. In fact, I anticipate it would be a wash for us. Plus, you don’t risk a firefighter . . .  getting hurt responding to an ambulance run.”

Contracting for outside service “is the direction that DCA (state Department of Community Affairs) would like to see us going,” he said.

In a notice sent to the state May 5, Harrison said it planned to issue layoff notices by May 16 so that these can take effect by July 1, “thus providing the town with a half-year of savings, which is needed to balance the town’s 2011 budget.”

Harrison is asking the Civil Service Commission to “expedite its review of the plan” so it can be implemented in a timely manner.

The town proposes these cuts to the Fire Department: Eliminate all four battalion fire chief slots, chop five of nine fire captain positions and drop two of the 40 firefighters.

Base pay for battalion chief is $120,004; for fire captain, $110,299; and for the firefighter ranks affected, $67,200 to $85,200, town records show. Those figures do not include the costs of health benefits or longevity.

In the Police Department, both captain slots would be abolished and six of the 30 police officer ranks would be chopped. Base pay for captain is $120,005; for police officers affected, from $67,214 to $85,201. Again, these figures do not include health benefits or longevity.

Superior officers in both departments targeted for layoff would have the right to “bump” uniformed employees in lower ranks.

The town has held several labor negotiation sessions with the police and fire unions in an effort to come up with alternate economic strategies aimed at forestalling layoffs.

Joe Kinsella, head of the local Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, said his union is still talking with the town.  But David Prina, head of the Fireman’s Mutual Benevolent Association, said his union sees little point in continuing to parley.

“We’ve met five times, and every time they’ve said a different thing,” Prina said. “First they wanted us down to 24 (out of the current 40 firefighters), then it was 29, and then 28 . . . .”

No one from the town administration has given the union “a set outline, a plan of what’s going to happen to the Fire Department” if the layoffs are implemented, Prina said. “And the whole plan apparently revolves around one piece of equipment – a ‘Quint’ (combination pumper/ladder truck) – that we don’t even have.”

Prina warned that cutting back on fire protection could result in residents having to pay more for property insurance because “ISO (Insurance Service Organization) ratings are going to go through the roof.”

And, Prina said, privatizing the ambulance service could also hurt residents, because an outside entity is likely going to be more aggressive than the town in pursuing bill collections. “We believe, as EMTs, our pride, professionalism and courtesy to the residents of our town cannot and will not be matched by any (outside) ambulance company,” he said.

The FMBA plans to organize a protest rally of firefighters and residents at the June 9 meeting of the mayor and Town Council. In addition,  the union membership has passed a vote of “no confidence” in Fire Chief Tom Dolaghan for not speaking out on the  privatization and staffing issues and for “disregard for the Incident Command System and firefighter safety, as documented by N.J. PEOSH (Public Employee Occupational Safety & Health) and N.J. Dept. of Labor.”

Dolaghan said that going to an outside ambulance service was “not my plan, but if we’re going to be at lower firefighter numbers, we’re going to need assistance. . . . . I can’t see not having our ambulance available (as a backup), manpower permitting.”

Dolaghan also said he has pushed for promotions in the ranks and has put the town administration on notice that he needs “more overtime” cash to get through the year.

As for the town being fined several years ago by the state for what it viewed as a lapse in fire command, Dolaghan said he probably used questionable judgment when he injured himself falling into a hole at a collapsed building site but he said he’d “vigorously defend” a more recent complaint that he failed to provide a proper safety zone at an accident scene.

And, he said, during his nine years as fire chief, “I always tried to do my best for fire safety” by pressing for a minimum staffing level, securing a state-of-the-art pumper, a foam suppression system, up-to-date firefighter breathing kits and turnout gear, a toxin-removal gear-washing system and a firehouse diesel fuel collection unit.

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