Nutley switches from volunteer to paid fire chief; unclear whether Meola ordeal contributed to move

Nutley Public Safety Commissioner Alphonse Petracco and newly elevated Fire Chief Paul Cafone Photo courtesy of Al Petracco

A nearly century-old tradition ended Jan. 3 when the Nutley Township Board of Commissioners voted to designate a paid “full-time member” of the Fire Department as its chief.

Up to now, the township — which deploys both volunteer and salaried firefighters — has made a practice of picking a volunteer firefighter to head the department and a salaried firefighter to serve as the No. 2 fire administrator.

As of Jan. 23 — when the township’s newly amended ordinance takes effect — Paul Cafone, the paid deputy fire chief, will assume the role of department chief. He was appointed to the post by township Public Safety Commissioner Alphonse Petracco.

The chief, as provided under the new law, “shall have sole and entire control over the Fire Department and shall report directly to the Director of Public Safety.”

Petracco said no change in salary is currently planned for Cafone, whose annual base pay stands at about $175,000.

The township policy change follows the arrest Dec. 16 of Henry Meola, 33, who had been serving as Nutley’s volunteer fire chief, on charges of luring/enticing and endangering the welfare of a child after police said he allegedly sought a meeting with an underage boy for sex in North Bergen.  He was released pending a hearing in mid-January.

Former Nutley Fire Chief Henry Meola Observer file photo

Asked whether the criminal proceeding triggered the change in Fire Department leadership policy by the township, Mayor Joseph Scarpelli deferred to Petracco who declined comment because of the still pending investigation by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office.

Petracco said the change in Fire Department leadership protocol isn’t intended as a criticism of the volunteers.

“I’m proud of our volunteers,” he said. But, he added, change was needed because the traditional way of running the department was simply “antiquated.”

“Things are moving fast in the world today,” the commissioner said. “You need a (full-time) chief there every day. Volunteers are constantly moving in and out. I just feel it’s in the best interests of our residents.  It’s time (for a change). And volunteerism has declined, not just in Nutley but around the country. We took over the ambulance squad a few years ago and we require new (paid firefighter) hires to be certified EMTs.”

Two Nutley residents — Tom Peters and Charles Kucinski — spoke in support of the policy change during a public hearing on the ordinance.

A former Newark Fire Department captain and treasurer of the Retired Police and Firemen’s Association of Essex County, Peters congratulated Cafone, adding that, “I know he’s qualified (for the chief’s job).”  He said he believed the shift to a paid chief was “definitely not a knock against volunteers” but that because “the numbers (of volunteers) are down,” it made sense to go with a full-timer as head of the department.

Scarpelli Observer file photo

Kucinski, a Nutley Board of Education trustee and a retired Nutley career firefighter who retired in 1997 as executive officer with the department (but still answerable to a volunteer chief), noted, “the ratio of volunteer to career firefighters” has been declining nationwide.

Kucinski said the number of volunteers in Nutley has declined, from 75-plus in 1990 to fewer than 15 today, while paid personnel have grown, from 30 to 41, over that same period. During 2022, he said, Nutley firefighters responded to more than 5,100 calls — “an inordinate number…for a town the size of Nutley.”

Given what he called the ever-increasing need for full-time firefighters, “the position of chief needs to come from the ranks of the career (paid) department,” Kucinski said.

Cafone, 61, who joined the Nutley Fire Department in January 1984 after serving about a year as a police dispatcher and temporary police officer, was promoted to fire captain in May 2001 and to deputy chief in March 2010. He plans to step down in four years when he hits the state mandatory retirement age.

Going with a volunteer chief so long “was kept for traditional purposes,” Cafone said. But since the 1980s, he said, the Fire Department has taken on a lot of new responsibilities requiring a full-time supervisor to oversee. Firefighter training requirements, including EMT certification, running the emergency rescue squad and acting as the county’s Haz-Mat responder (except for Newark) have all contributed to broadening the spectrum of fire services, he said.

Cafone said he remains committed to “keeping the town the safest as it can be, along with our firefighters.”

A couple of other challenges he’ll likely face down the road — as suggested by Peters — is restoration of a firehouse dedicated to serving the west side of the township and, depending on what, if anything, state Civil Service may advise, is whether the township will have to fill the deputy chief position that will be vacated when Cafone becomes chief.

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Ron Leir | For The Observer

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc.

He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter.

He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based WHATCo. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, New York