Earlier this month, Guttenberg Mayor David Delle Donna allowed the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue (NHRFR) department to remove the hook and ladder and pumper truck from the Guttenberg Volunteer Fire Department, which were purchased by the Regional department for Guttenberg. These two trucks were the only trucks the department had.
The trucks instead will be used by the NHRFR, since Guttenberg pays a fee to the NHRFR to provide service to Guttenberg anyway. Delle Donna saw the volunteers as a duplication of services.
The NHRFR covers Union City, West New York, North Bergen, Weehawken and Guttenberg.
This decision was made after a settlement was reached on a lawsuit between six former members of the Guttenberg Volunteer Fire Department and the Regional department, claiming that because Guttenberg fell under the jurisdiction of NHRFR, a fully paid department, its volunteers would be given first preference to be hired by that department. As part of the agreement, these six members will be given the chance to be hired as long as they meet all of the pre-employment conditions set by the regional and state, said Co-Director of NHRFR Jeff Welz. These conditions include passing a physical and mental examination and the completion of the mandatory fire training at a state-approved fire-training academy.
Welz and Turner both said that the regional department is against the ruling, adding that the law was never applied to a regional department before.
"Only one of the five towns would have preference," said Welz.
Since that settlement was reached, all of the municipalities involved in the regional department, including Guttenberg, agreed to disassociate with the volunteer department. This disassociation takes away any future preference to Guttenberg volunteers.
"We amended the contract to say that the Guttenberg Volunteer Fire Department is no longer a part of the regional department," said Welz, adding that now the Guttenberg residents will be on equal footing with the rest of the residents who apply.
The volunteer department, now left with no equipment, will also not be dispatched to any more fires.
Some left without preference
Just because the Guttenberg volunteer firefighters were given a one-time preference on the North Hudson Regional Firefighters hiring list, doesn't open the door for all volunteers.
"That preference was a one time incident to those volunteers in Guttenberg because they fell under the jurisdiction of a fully paid department," said Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, who is also a member of the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue Management Committee. "It did not apply to all volunteers and it never will again."
According to state law, if there is a volunteer fire department and a paid fire department in the same municipality, members of the volunteer fire department are given preference for hiring in that municipality. However, since Secaucus is not a town covered by North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue, they do not receive preference.
But then, where can Secaucus volunteers go to get hired?
According to Secaucus Business Administrator and Firefighter Anthony Iacono, Secaucus firefighters are eligible to be ranked in any municipality that opens their test to the state. However, a spokesperson from the state's Department of Personnel, which is responsible for testing and ranking eligible firefighters, each municipality is responsible for passing an ordinance for their town's residency requirements. Nearby municipalities such as Hoboken, Jersey City and the five towns included in the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue all require that their firefighters live within the municipalities at the time they are hired.
Only two municipalities in Hudson County, Harrison and Kearny, hire off of a statewide list, and luckily for the Secaucus volunteers, these municipalities also give preference to Hudson County and Essex County residents.
While the rest of Hudson County has become over-ridden with multiple-dwelling apartment buildings and large population densities, Secaucus has remained a mostly suburban municipality dominated by one-family dwellings.
It is probably those characteristics that make it possible for Secaucus to keep its fully functioning volunteer fire department.
"The urban density is what forced [most of Hudson County] to have a paid department," said Turner, who is also the business administrator for West New York.
However, Iacono said that he does think that a paid department might become necessary in Secaucus, but he hopes that that doesn't happen for at least another 10 years.
"Right now we have more than 100 volunteers," said Iacono. "When that number begins to decrease we will have to think about changing to a paid department. As long as we have 100 volunteers, there is no reason to have a paid fire department."
"Many larger communities than Secaucus still have volunteer departments," said Turner, adding that there are only about 40 fully paid fire departments in the state.
However, Iacono said that he doesn't think that the fire department would become a fully paid fire department. Iacono said that he would hire paid firefighters for the administrative work. Many municipalities in the state also have partially paid fire departments, usually paying the drivers.
However, Iacono said that if the department does become fully paid, Secaucus would not be able to hire Secaucus residents only.
"We would have to open the list to the entire state," said Iacono, explaining that the municipality was forced to open its Police Department's list to the entire state after a settlement with the NAACP. "We wouldn't be able to hire Secaucus residents only."
The primary benefit of having a volunteer fire department is the cost to the taxpayers.
According to Iacono, it would cost anywhere from $2 to $4 million to have a fully paid department in Secaucus.
"That would mean a 20 percent increase in taxes for each resident," said Iacono. "That is why we don't see a public outcry for a paid fire department. It costs a lot of money."
While Secaucus is the largest community in Hudson County to have a volunteer department, East Newark also still has volunteers.
However, unlike Secaucus, which is 5.8 square miles with a population of more than 14,000, East Newark Fire Chief Allan Ford does not think that their municipality will ever have a paid department.
"We are way too small for a paid department," said Ford, explaining that East Newark is only .1 square mile and only has a population slightly more than 2,000 people. "I don't see it happening."
But Ford noted that the number of people that want to become volunteers has declined in recent years.
"It is harder now to get volunteers," said Ford, adding that you have to be 18 with a valid driver's license to be a volunteer. "Kids now are going right into the workforce."
East Newark's department now has 23 firefighters. According to Ford, a full department for them is 20 members in each of its two departments and four runners. However, now, they only have 12 in one department and 11 in the other.
"We have guys that have taken state tests," said Ford, adding that all volunteers have to go through the same training as paid firefighters. "No doubt about that."