"When we signed up for the fire department, it was done with a great deal of family pride," Grennan said. "My uncles were volunteers, and my cousins were. When I came in, you had to buy your uniform and gear and you had to have it by the third meeting. But we all did it and were proud to do it."
On July 1, Guttenberg Mayor David Delle Donna instructed the North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue, a paid fire department serving five towns, to remove the hook and ladder truck and the pumper truck that the Guttenberg Volunteer Fire Department had been using as loaners from the Regional.
Those were the volunteers' only trucks. Now, they must use their cars to fight fires.
Delle Donna said that the move was made on the heels of word that a settlement was reached on a lawsuit between six former members of the Guttenberg Volunteer Fire Department and the NHRFR, claiming that they had a right to be hired under past grandfather laws giving volunteers first preference to be hired, but were not brought in as members when the five-municipality regional took effect in January, 1999.
As part of the agreement, the six members who were involved in the lawsuit, as well as one other former member, will be given the chance to be hired as paid firefighters provided they pass physical and mental examinations and complete the mandatory fire training at a state-approved fire training academy.
"Since the majority of their active members will now become members of the Regional, we passed a resolution asking the North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue to temporarily suspend the volunteer department's use of the two trucks," Delle Donna said. "We needed to address this issue and settle it as soon as possible. We pay $1.5 million annually for service from the Regional. This can't go on forever. We have a duplication of services and I don't feel it's prudent for those trucks to roll out there. We're making a prudent financial decision based on fact, not fiction."
Beginning of the end
NHRFR Co-Director Jeff Welz said that the NHRFR is just acting on the request of Delle Donna and the Township Council.
"We have a responsibility to heed the request of the governing body of a member municipality," Welz said. "The issue of equipment must be addressed properly and we expect to do so in due course."
The two trucks, a 1980 Seagrave hook and ladder and a 1984 pumper, were removed from the Guttenberg volunteer firehouses and taken to the NHRFR storage facility in North Bergen, where they will receive service. The hook and ladder was damaged, with its ladder unable to be used fully.
Delle Donna believes that the volunteer membership has been cut to a minimum with the pending hiring of the seven former volunteers, namely Chief Yves Saad, Alan Williams, Jr., James Damore, Roberto Ortiz, Richard Nicholds, Timothy Colacci and Louis Knoetig. Only Knoetig was not listed as a defendant in the lawsuit against the NHRFR.
"They have members who they consider active, but haven't done a single thing in three years," Delle Donna said. "They probably have 10 semi-active volunteer firemen and four full-time members. Since the regional owned the trucks, we felt that we were at a huge liability if something happened."
Assistant Chief Robert Ensmann disputes the mayor's claim.
"We have over 20 men on the rolls," Ensmann said. "When the regional came into play, the tradition of our department slowly went away. We would respond to a fire call, but we would be told to sit down the block and look pretty. We're all used to being first line firefighters, so some of our members were getting pretty disgusted. They'd get to a scene and be told that they weren't needed. I'm not going to lie. We've lost [volunteers] because of that."
Ensmann said that the volunteers are not going away.
"They're not getting rid of us," Ensmann said. "They just took our trucks. We're looking to do something for free to help the community and they're kicking us out. I'm happy for the guys who are getting put on. They've earned the right. I think the mayor should be sticking up for us and supporting Guttenberg, but he's not."
Ensmann said five residents heard about the demise of the department and have approached him, willing to sign up as new volunteers.
"They were ready to join, but the mayor wouldn't swear them in," Ensmann said.
Ensmann said that he has a career in electrical sales, so he didn't want to pursue a full-time career in firefighting.
"Right now, we're going to respond to calls by jumping in our cars and going," Ensmann said. "But the morale is down. The mayor hasn't given us any reason to have morale."
Some of the members can't believe that the department might be nearing its end, after 158 years of service.
"It really hurts," said Kevin Dille, who is a Hudson County Corrections officer. "A message came over the system saying that we were out of service. That's how we found out. I went up to headquarters and the trucks were gone. It's real upsetting. It's part of a huge tradition here and it's being ended with no respect to the tradition. We never did anything for money. It was always for the community."
Ensmann said that the volunteers did more than just fight fires.
"We would help people with water leaks, with trees that fell," Ensmann said. "We would have a member dress up as Santa Claus and drive around in the truck for the kids. We gave out goodies at Thanksgiving. We were involved in public services that kept Guttenberg more as a family-oriented town."
"It's extremely disappointing," Grennan said. "I feel as if it is being ripped away from us, a tradition that has been here for 150 years. There has to be a better way of doing this. Why get rid of something that is volunteer?"
Delle Donna said finances are involved. The town has to foot the bill for radios, fire gear and equipment, as well as high life insurance premiums.
"I get no satisfaction out of doing this," Delle Donna said. "I know I'm making a decision that is not popular. But things change in life. Maybe we should ask the taxpayers if they should pay for a duplication of service. This is something that had to be done to save money."
All along, Delle Donna is hopeful that the volunteers would be willing and eager to form a volunteer ambulance squad, which would serve more of a purpose, but the firemen aren't listening to the mayor's plea.
"It's like they're killing Santa Claus," one member said.