On Jan. 1, for the third time in his career as a volunteer firefighter, George Schoenrock will become chief of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department.
In his 48 years in the department, Schoenrock, 74, has seen the town grow from “meadows to concrete,” as he told the Reporter last year, and has lived through – and helped extinguish – some of Secaucus’ worst fires, including one at the American Can Company in the 1960s.
“To me, it’s a matter of life and safety.” – Secaucus firefighter
But lately, some in the department have openly questioned whether a man of Schoenrock’s age should assume the position of chief.
“I’m not saying he can’t be a member of the Fire Department,” said one Secaucus firefighter who did not want to be identified. “There are a lot of things a man with his experience can do. He can still contribute. But being an active firefighter? No. I don’t think he should be doing that. Not at 74.”
Fit for active duty?
In addition to captains and lieutenants, the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department hierarchy includes a battalion chief, a deputy chief, and a chief. Every two years the membership elects a new battalion chief who serves in that position for two years. That person then automatically moves up in rank and assumes the position of deputy chief for two years. After that, the individual moved up and serves as chief for two years.
“If I’m healthy enough to do the job, why not do it?” – George Schoenrock
“I don’t want to knock the guy. I like the guy. I just think his age is a big factor,” said one firefighter last week, who, like the other members of the department interviewed, did not want to be identified in this story. “I don’t think he’s competent to do the job. This guy wears two hearing aids. How could he possibly know what’s going on? He don’t hear half the calls as it is. And who in their right mind would want to be a fire chief at 74, 75 years old? It doesn’t make sense.”
Most paid fire departments have age restrictions. They set a maximum age for applicants to join the department, and require chiefs to retire by 65.
In some larger fire departments a fire chief may rarely see active duty and may serve more as an administrator or manager of the department.
In Secaucus, however, which has a department of 90 firefighters, the chief sees plenty of front-line action.
The current Fire Chief, Mayor Michael Gonnelli, declined to address Schoenrock’s age. He said the department has responded to 715 calls this year and that he personally has responded – as an active firefighter – to about 70 percent of those calls.
Chief ‘requires foresight’
Firefighters interviewed last week described the strategic approach a chief must take to each fire scene.
“You have to consider, every time a fire engine rolls out, it could be a serious call,” said one member of the department. A chief, he added, “has to be able to make decisions, quick decisions, on the spot, which is a very important part of being chief. Schoenrock can’t make those kinds of quick decisions anymore. To me, it’s a matter of life and safety.”
En route to every call, firefighters said, a chief has to consider what the scene might be and once there, according to one firefighter, must be able to quickly “size up what he sees and what he doesn’t see, so he can paint an accurate picture for the guys coming.”
The chief also has to “establish command at the scene…You have to look at this whole big scene and say, This is where everybody’s going to go and this is what they’re going to do: Engine 3, you’re going to take the attack. Ladder 1, I want you in the front of the building. I need the ladder to the roof. Engine 1, you’re going to be the water supply. You need to supply water to Engine 3.’ ”
The position, another firefighter said, “requires a little bit of foresight.”
When it was noted that Schoenrock was chief in 1991 and 1992, the firefighters interviewed said he was much younger then.
“The basics of firefighting are the same,” said one. “But there’s new stuff you gotta know every day, every month. [Schoenrock is] not able to keep up with that at .”
In an October interview with the Reporter Gonnelli said dealing with terrorist attacks is now a significant part of what firefighters are expected to know.
Ascension to chief rooted in sagas
The reasons Schoenrock will take his third turn as fire chief are rooted in two long Secaucus sagas that came to a head in 2008.
When that year began, Robert Parisi was chief, Gonnelli was deputy chief, and Charles T. Synder was battalion chief. By the end of the year two of them – Gonnelli and Snyder – would be out. Snyder voluntarily resigned from the department in August 2008 after being implicated in a harassment lawsuit that cost the town millions of dollars.
Gonnelli, who at the time was a town councilman, had been fighting a conflict of interest matter before the state Department of Community Affairs. Weeks before he was to be sworn in as chief, Gonnelli gave up the position after the administration of former Mayor Dennis Elwell told him he could not simultaneously serve as councilman and chief.
Schoenrock, who was voted as acting battalion chief in Snyder’s place, soon moved up two ranks and became chief when Gonnelli stepped aside.
Earlier this year, when state law was changed to allow elected officials to also be senior officers of volunteer departments, Gonnelli became chief (in addition to being mayor), and Schoenrock was bumped back down to being deputy chief.
Now that Gonnelli’s tenure as chief is about to end on Dec. 31, Schoenrock is in line to take over the top spot in the department.
Schoenrock: ‘I’m healthy’
In response to the issues raised, Schoenrock said last week that the membership need not be concerned.
“If I’m healthy enough to do the job, why not do it? That would be my answer,” said Schoenrock. “You got some people who are half dead at 60, and other people who are healthier and in better shape at 80. You can’t always tell what someone is capable of just by going off their age. If I didn’t have my health I would not do the job.”
He added that he is still sharp mentally and pointed out that, as a retiree, he can commit to the department “100 percent,” something a younger chief who is still in the workforce cannot do.
Ironically, all of the firefighters interviewed – including Schoenrock – said they believe the Fire Department should follow the example of paid departments and should set an age restriction for senior officers. There was disagreement on what that age should be.
Gonnelli, 55, said he would probably stop being an active firefighter by the time he is 60.
Other firefighters said the age limit could be as high as 65.
Schoenrock said, “The retirement age would have to be set by the Fire Department.”
If an age restriction were to be set, it would have to be decided by the rank and file, Gonnelli said, and then approved by the Town Council.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.