One of the last symbols of a troubled and bygone era has been demolished and removed from the North End firehouse, a move that town officials hope will mark a fresh start for the two companies housed there.
Two weeks ago, on March 1, town workers ripped the bar out of the firehouse recreation center, which until recently served alcohol in defiance of town law. The move came after an incident last year at the North End firehouse, on Paterson Plank Road, exposed what had been rumored for years.
In December, two firefighters assigned to Engine Co. 2, which is based at the North End firehouse, were suspended for two weeks for alleged drinking in the firehouse, destruction of public property, and verbal abuse.
Drinking is banned in all of Secaucus’ four firehouses, unless a permit is issued by the town. No such permit had been requested or issued by the North End firehouse in December.
In response, Mayor Michael Gonnelli, a member of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department and a former chief of the department, ordered that the recreation room at the North End firehouse be closed until further notice. The recreation room and kitchen area are now being renovated by town workers, a project Gonnelli estimates will be completed within a month.
“I don’t want to dwell on the past or rake up what happened in the past,” said Gonnelli. “I want to focus on the future, and this is a positive step for the future of this firehouse.”
The mayor said he does not know when the new – alcohol-free – recreation room will be re-opened to the 18 firefighters assigned to the North End. Throughout the closure of the recreation room, the firehouse has been open and active for fire-fighting-related duties and the firefighters assigned to the North End have responded to calls.
In recent years three new firefighters have been assigned to the North End, which houses Engine Co. 2 and Rescue 1. A fourth new firefighter is scheduled to be sworn in this week, on March 12, who will also be assigned to the North End.
Gonnelli said these fresh recruits at the North End are part of a new, more professional era at the firehouse.
History of trouble
Socializing is a staple of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department and it is common for firefighters in each company to hang out in the recreation rooms of their respective firehouses. Time spent in the firehouses, firefighters have stated in the past, builds camaraderie and trust among people who often have to depend upon one another with their lives.
Until 2001, drinking was allowed in all four of the town’s firehouses, and it was common for firefighters to do their bonding over a couple of beers. But this socializing could sometimes get out of hand, and there were reported incidents in which firefighters allegedly made a nuisance of themselves, allegedly after partying in the firehouses.
In 2001, drinking was banned by the Town Council unless a town permit was issued for a private party or social event. (Firefighters who attend permitted parties where alcohol is served are prohibited from responding to fire emergencies.)
The most notorious incident at the North End took place in 2004, when several firefighters assigned to the firehouse allegedly participated in a homophobic attack on a gay couple who lived next door to the firehouse. The alleged incident took place after a party held at the firehouse.
Following this incident, which ultimately led to a lawsuit which the town lost and was forced to pay $2.8 million to the plaintiffs, and another $2 million in legal fees, drinking regulations in firehouses were revised by the Town Council.
While three of Secaucus’ firehouses appear to have complied with the law, rumors of partying and drinking in the North End continued for years. As late as 2008 and 2009 the Reporter was told of a soda machine at the North End firehouse that dispensed beer and residents on Paterson Plank Road told of periodic boisterous parties on weekends.
In December, two firefighters were suspended for drinking in the firehouse and the incident was investigated by the Secaucus Police Department.
But Gonnelli said he and the Town Council are determined to turn a corner and believe they can with the help of new recruits now assigned to Engine 2 and Rescue 1.
“We have a bunch of new guys assigned to this firehouse now, and they’re all really good. They all have good heads on their shoulders,” said Gonnelli. “They are the wave of the future in this firehouse and I think they’re bringing in new energy, making things better. So, all that stuff from the past is done. It’s over. This is a new era.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.