2nd woman, oldest rookie join KFD


About four months ago, eight rookies entered the Morris County Public Safety Academy for training as future firefighters and now they are in Kearny firehouses ready for anything.

The new contingent – all of whom will have their pay and benefits picked up through a federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response) grant – got sworn in at the June 28 mayor/Town Council meeting.

Each will earn $33,000 a year, the first step on the Kearny firefighter salary guide.

All graduated from the 16-week firefighter/EMT training program on June 3.

Among the group is Firefighter Jessica Zelaya, 26, only the second woman to grace the membership of the KFD, joining Martina Smith, a Navy veteran and New Jersey City University fire science degree holder who was hired in 2009.

Zelaya, a Kearny resident and alumna of Kearny High, where she played soccer, holds degrees in criminal justice and nursing from Rutgers-Newark and has worked as an R.N. at Newark Beth Israel Hospital since 2013.

The other KFD recruits are: Jonathan Gonzalez, Pablo Astorga, Manny Pagan, Paulo DeCaldas, William Lyman Jr., Stephen Levchak Jr. and John Albizu.

Research by fire officials shows that at age 39, Astorga is the oldest rookie ever hired by the KFD. “In my tenure as chief, which goes back to 2007,” Fire Chief Steven Dyl said, “he’s the oldest.” Civil Service rules say that an applicant must be no younger than 18 and no older than 35 as of the closing date for their application. Astorga was 34 when he applied. Civil Service issued the list from which this group was hired in March 2010.

Two of the rookies are local public-safety legacies: Lyman’s grandfather, Bernard Lyman, was a Kearny firefighter for a short time and his cousin, Glen Williams, is a KFD captain; Levchak’s brother, Chris, is a Kearny police officer and his dad is a retired KPD lieutenant.

“It’s been a great day for the Kearny Fire Department,” Dyl told the audience of family members, friends and firefighters in the packed council chambers Tuesday night, “beginning with [8th District] Congressman [Bill] Pascrell, who instituted the SAFER program, coming to town. He’s been a great supporter of the fire service.”

Dyl credited the lawmaker with having endorsed the town’s applications for $2 million in federal grants to hire additional personnel and secure firefighting equipment.

Of that total, Dyl said the town will apply $1.5 million over two years toward the hiring of 12 new firefighters – with the other four anticipated by fall – “as we get closer to our T.O. (Table of Organization),” which allows up to 102 KFD employees.

Actually, with the KFD ranks thinned by retirements – at least a dozen are eligible to leave next year – the department plans to hire as many as 14 new members by October to try and get back to full strength.

Here are some brief profiles on the other firefighters who received their badges last week:

Jonathan Gonzalez, 25, a Kearny resident originally from Newark, is a graduate of St. Mary’s High School, Rutherford, and attended NJCU for two years. He was a service assistant for the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services before coming to Kearny as a civilian dispatcher. His father-in-law is a retired firefighter.

Pablo Astorga is a Newark resident who graduated from Passaic Valley High School, Little Falls. He worked previously for ESP (Engineering Solutions & Products) LLC, a military subcontractor, in Maryland. He’s married with one child.

John Albizu, 29, is a Kearny resident who worked for the past year as a mechanic with the Kearny Public Works Department. He has a mechanic’s certification from Universal Technical Institute in Exton, Pa.

Paulo DeCaldas, 30, lives in Newark where he graduated from Science High.  He has worked as a manager, cook and driver for Big Nick’s Pizza in Kearny.

Manny Pagan, 24, is a Newark resident and graduate of Ridge St. School, Newark, who earned a certification in welding from Bloomfield Tech. He pursued engineering studies at Essex County College, Newark, and he worked previously as a security officer for Allied Barton Security Services, Lyndhurst.

William Lyman Jr., 25, is a Kearny resident and KHS alum who worked previously as a shipping manager for Apex Saw & Tool, Lyndhurst.

Stephen Levchak Jr., 26, is a Kearny resident and KHS alum who completed a liberal arts degree at Bergen Community College. He was a supervisor with Impark at Montclair University.

Councilwoman Eileen Eckel, who chairs the council Fire Committee, got to know the rookies up-close and personal last month when she was “rescued” by them from a burning building scenario played out (with Eckel in protective gear) at the Morris Academy. She reminded them that their KFD colleagues – many standing in the chambers Tuesday night – “paved the way for you” and advised them, “don’t hesitate to ask them for help” as they warm to their new tasks ahead.


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