Firefighters unite for march: Union protests lack of new hirings in North Hudson Regional
It's been 14 months since the fire departments of North Bergen, Union City, West New York, Weehawken and Guttenberg decided to unite and form one regionalized department, North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue. The department was designed to save taxpayers money while maintaining and increasing the amount of service given in fighting fires in the area. According to the leaders of the North Hudson Firefighters' Union, the department is not living up to its stated purpose of improving service. "We were all understaffed as it was and since we merged, we've gone from a total of 330 firefighters to 270 with buyouts and retirements," said Glen Michelin, the union president, last week. "Because of the merger, we're now below the national standards (of the National Fire Protection Association) of four men to an engine and five to a truck. We now have three. We're working at 38 percent efficiency and that puts the firefighters and the general public in jeopardy." Michelin and his colleagues organized a protest march and rally throughout the streets of north Hudson on Wednesday afternoon. The march, for which some of the townships initially did not want to give authorization, continued through the streets of the five communities, mostly along busy Bergenline Avenue, and culminated in a rally at Schuetzen Park in North Bergen. Former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, who is mounting a campaign to run for the U.S. Senate in the fall, attended the rally in support of the firefighters. "We just wanted to shed a little light on our problems," Michelin said. "And we wanted to tell the public where we think everything is headed. With the five departments combined, we now have one of the five biggest departments in New Jersey in the most densely populated area in the country, yet we're grossly undermanned." While the rally was ongoing, the management of the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue held a press conference in front of North Bergen Town Hall. Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner denied the accusations from the firefighters. "The two goals we set out for when we started the regionalization were to make sure we made things safer and with a quicker fire response," Turner said. "We've dropped the political differences and we're now fighting fires by geography. Part of the reason for their protest has been the success we've had." Turner added, "We've increased the amount of firefighters on duty, from 53 to 58, on duty at all times. Manpower is up, not down. Before the regionalization, half of north Hudson had two men on a vehicle and others had three. Now, every vehicle is manned with three. By geography, we eliminate the need for more." Michelin, who works out of Union City, pointed out that since the regionalization was put into place on Jan. 1, 1999, there has not been a single hire in any of the five municipalities. "The directors and chiefs have been promising hires, but where are they?" he said. "It seems as if their hands are tied. Now, we're dealing with five towns, so there's even more red tape to go through. There are no mechanisms to hire anyone. What list do they come from? Three of the lists are now dead. Only West New York and Union City still have live lists." Turner refuted Michelin's comments. "We couldn't begin the hiring process until November, when we found out how many people took the buyouts," he said. "Since then, we've agreed to hire 14 firefighters, which will bring us to 289. That's going to happen within the next 30 days. We wanted to get that done as soon as we knew how many buyouts we had." Turner also said that provisions have been made to institute a new regional hiring list. The state's Civil Service has certified the regional firefighting test. "There already has been a test and we're in the process of doing the physical tests and the psychological tests," he said. "There will be a new regional hiring list. We promised no layoffs and no demotions and we've done that as well." Don Marino, the vice-president of the union, who is from the North Bergen fire department, agreed that there are problems. "They all believe this to be the savior and it's been nothing but a nightmare for us," Marino said. "They want everyone to believe that everything is fine and working well, when in reality, it isn't. The public is not getting the service, although it is being portrayed that they are." Marino continued, "They're now using the North Hudson regionalization as a model to other areas of the state and it's really the worst. Until we get our side out and our word, the public will never know." Turner rebutted, "They are not telling the public the truth." Michelin also had questions as to where the funding that comes from local municipal budgets is going. "We need to bring someone in as an overseer," he said. "There was special funding set aside for the regionalization, but there is no policy. Where is the money being spent? It's not for hiring. It's not for new equipment. It's not for new trucks or engines. They promoted 19 people to lieutenants. How can they promote without hiring? There has not been one single hire. We've lost some to retirement and some to buyouts and added no one." Michelin pointed out some of the recent calls to fires have been utilizing fire companies from neighboring towns outside of the regional. "We had a five-alarm fire the other day and we had to call upon Harrison and Secaucus to come into Union City," he said. "Jersey City is with us all the time and they have to be getting tired of it. Secaucus has a volunteer department and they're coming to help, but they're not as equipped or trained. It's like having an all-star baseball team with seven second basemen. It doesn't work." Turner disagreed. "They say that we have to rely on other fire companies, but it's always been that way. It's not out of the ordinary." Turner also presented statistics which stated that the amount of multi-alarm fires are down from 50 in 1997 to 26 in 1999 and there was not a single fire fatality since the NHRFR was formed. "Plus, our equipment is in better shape," Turner said. "It has been maintained evenly and better. The response time is faster to calls." Marino was asked if the protest had anything to do with current contract negotiations, which have reached an official impasse and have been in the hands of an arbitrator for a month. "This rally had nothing to do with contract negotiations," he said. "That's the standard line that the politicians want to give. We're just looking at the overall safety of the department and it's scary." Michelin echoed his fellow firefighter's sentiments. "We just want the public to know that we don't feel it's safe right now," he said. "And they shouldn't either. Since it's gone through, they've closed one firehouse and four companies. There's a shortage everywhere. We don't want to get into personal issues or money issues. We just needed to draw some attention to what was going on." However, Turner believed that the rally was a negotiation tool. "They are inflaming the public for their own purposes," he said. "It's all about the contract negotiations. They never fail to talk about salary, benefits and perks. In terms of average salary, they are receiving higher pay than a New York City fireman. It happens all the time, when a union organizes such a rally during a contract negotiation. We have seven different unions involved. It's very serious negotiations. This was done to put pressure on the contract process." Turner added, "They have yet to prove a single statistic that we're not providing a higher quality service. We acknowledge that we have hard working firefighters and we need them. They do a superb job and we want them. But this happens all the time during contract talks." Michelin believed the rally was a success. "We just wanted to draw some attention to certain things and we accomplished that," he said.