Civilians in control

Photo by Ron Leir Telecommunicator Joe Piumelli mans his dispatching console at KFD’s Maple St. communications center
Photo by Ron Leir
Telecommunicator Joe Piumelli mans his dispatching console at KFD’s Maple St. communications center


It took a while to achieve but now that the civilian dispatching system for the Kearny Fire Department has been fully operational for a year, Fire Chief Steven Dyl has pronounced it a success.

Currently, 16 employees – four full-time and the rest part-time – are available to take all calls 24/7 coming through the switchboard and, in response to a fire-related call, to direct rigs to those locations, according to Dyl and Fire Capt. Joseph Mastandrea, dispatch supervisor.

“The biggest benefit of it is we’re getting one more firefighter on line per shift, which raises our per-shift minimum from 15 to 16,” Dyl said.

Under the old system, a single uniformed firefighter was taking incoming calls at the dispatch communications center on Maple St. but now two civilians are assigned to each shift to handle those duties, the chief said.

Dyl said the department doesn’t tabulate the total number of calls received each day but it does track the volume of fire-related calls, which came out to about 2,900 in 2015.

Another big advantage of having two people at the computer console, Dyl said, is that, “we can split the phone duties between a call-taker and a dispatcher and we can get our first responders out faster to a fire.”

That flexibility can be an enormous boost in potential life and death situations, the chief said. As an example, he cited a call that came into the communications center on Nov. 20, 2014, from the occupant of a burning Beech St. residence.

Having established the nature of the incident and location, the call-taker passed along the information to the other dispatcher who then immediately alerted the appropriate fire companies for an immediate response to the scene, Dyl said. At the same time, the chief added, the call-taker was able to stay on the line with the resident who was climbing out on the roof to escape the flames and keep the individual calm as fire rigs rushed to the scene.

“This helps us run a safer and smoother operation,” Dyl said. “Before, the dispatcher would have had to put the caller on hold to notify the fire companies before getting back to the caller.’’

But the shift from uniformed to civilian dispatchers almost didn’t happen.

Back in 2011, Dyl said he was instructed by the administration of Mayor Alberto Santos to research scenarios where firefighters could be relieved of desk duty via dispatch service in favor of reassigning them to on-line service.

First, the town explored a deal with University Hospital, Newark, to handle that responsibility “but they backed out,” Dyl said.

Next up, in July 2012, came a proposed three-year sharedservices agreement for dispatching services with the East Orange Fire Department at $90,000 for the first year plus a one-time cost of $6,500 to install dedicated phone wires and software.

At the time, Santos hailed the plan, saying it would save the town money on what it had been paying for four firefighters to share dispatching duties around the clock.

But only a few months later, Super Storm Sandy struck and that was a blow that, according to Dyl, “highlighted deficiencies” with the East Orange system that, ultimately, led to Kearny canceling the contract.

“East Orange could not access our transmitter,” he said. At the same time, he said, “you were adding another series of relays to our communications system to communicate” and that proved too cumbersome to work. Ultimately, Kearny paid East Orange $10,743 to get out of the contract, according to CFO Shuaib Firozvi.

At that point, it was back to the drawing board. “We looked at Overlook Hospital in Summit,” Dyl said, “but that vehicle became defunct [with its closure]. We asked Jersey City to consider it but they weren’t interested and North Hudson Regional [Fire & Rescue] couldn’t do it.”

So, in February 2013, the town set in motion a plan to deploy civilians in the job by creating job specifications for a “public safety tele-communicator trainee.” To qualify, applicants had to be residents of Kearny or Newark (as per a judicial anti-discrimination town employment consent decree), have a high school diploma and driver’s license and take a 40- hour training course.

Dyl said that, initially, the  goal was to hire 15 part-time employees. So, in March 2013,  the Town Council approved an ordinance to create the trainee position which would pay recruits $15.25 per hour for a work schedule not to exceed 24 1/2 hours per week. After completing training, a tele-communicator could after several years reach a maximum pay of $20.75 per hour.

By that summer, with the state Civil Service issuing a certified appointment list, the department began hiring personnel and training them. In December 2013, the civilian program began with a complement of 17 trainees.

As part of the transition process, “we started operating Monday to Friday, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., then we expanded to nights and then to weekends for full coverage,” the chief said.

But along the way, the program couldn’t seem to gain traction, Dyl acknowledged. Many of the new hires tended to quit after only a brief time on the job because the pay levels were too low, the chief said.

The salary guide was revised to provide for 10 steps leading to a maximum hourly rate of $27.60 and, in June 2014, the department was permitted to offer full-time dispatcher employment to a limited number of personnel. Under an agreement with Civil Service Kearny Council 11, a full-time employee would get $28,534 a year to start and, after 12 years, a maximum of $48,829.

Currently, the department is operating with a crew of 12 part-timers who put in varying hours on rotating 12-hour shifts along with four full-timers who work steady shifts.

Of that total, six are retired firefighters from Kearny and elsewhere while four have some type of public safety backgrounds. Three of the crew are women, including two full-time.

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