Two firehouses per day have been closed on a rotating basis by the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue squad, which provides fire services to North Bergen, West New York, Weehawken, Union City, and Guttenberg.
The top brass have had to make due with less staff, partly as a result of a NAACP lawsuit that led to a court-mandated hiring freeze. Fire officials have also wanted to avoid paying overtime to the existing firefighters, particularly with many taking vacations in the summer months.
In another cost saving measure, officials have lowered the minimum number of firefighters needed to operate the department per day from 60 to 54.
NFRHR Co-Director Jeff Welz said last week that overtime costs rise during the summer when people take vacations. He said that nearly every day so far this summer, 16 firefighters were off due to vacation.
Rescue 1, located at 6801 Madison Ave. in Guttenberg, has been closed since last week, and will likely be closed throughout the summer. Welz said that this house “wasn’t in service all the time” before.
The closure of a second firehouse, an engine company, is rotated throughout the other municipalities depending on the level of overtime they would need to pay.
Union not pleased
According to Co-Director Michael De Orio, the last time NHRFR was hiring, about two years ago, they were staffed at around 320 firefighters, but since then 28 men have retired. He expects around 10 were to retire this year.
But the heads of the firefighters’ unions say that closing houses has sacrificed safety standards for both residents and firefighters.
“The level of protection is diminished,” said North Hudson Firefighters Union President Dominick Marino. “I don’t know how far they’ll go without really jeopardizing the citizens and us.”
Both directors countered that the NHRFR is a large department comprised of 18 firehouses and that the same number of firefighters respond to fires now just as quickly as they did before – it is just that fewer firehouses are open.
Marino said that the closing of companies has led the department to rely more on mutual aid from fire departments in surrounding municipalities.
Captain James Stelman, the president of North Hudson Fire Officers Union, said that he did not believe that mutual aid has been misused, but worried about the department’s response time.
“If all the engines were working, we’d be able to handle two, possibly three incidents at a time,” said Marino. “Right now, we’re lucky if we can handle one.”
Marino said another issue was that each fire apparatus is manned by three firefighters, instead of a recommended national standard of four. He said that because of this, more trucks have to go to a fire in order to get the correct number of men fighting it.
De Orio said that this is absolutely false and that NHRFR has been using the same standards for the last 10 years.
Besides keeping overtime costs down, the department can’t hire due to a lawsuit filed in 2007 by four individuals along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They claimed the department was lacking minority candidates because they only hire from the five towns they serve.
A federal judge allowed the class-action suit to proceed last spring and issued NHRFR an injunction against hiring unless they did so from a broadened list that includes all of Hudson, Essex, and Union counties. A class as large as 872 African-American firefighters who passed a state-administered exam from 1999 to 2006 would be eligible.
Welz said that they are appealing the judge’s decision on the basis of reverse discrimination, since many of the applicants on NHRFR’s hiring list are Hispanic and would get pushed further down or kicked off the list altogether if they use the judge’s list.
Welz also said the decision is unfair, since towns like Newark and Irvington have a residency requirement that would prohibit the men on NHRFR’s hiring list from being hired in those cities.
Too many factors
Regarding the inability to hire, “It’s the perfect storm,” said Welz. “I think we all recognize that the country and New Jersey is in a severe economic downturn. We have an injunction against hiring and if we hire [from the judge’s list], we are doing a tremendous disservice, at least until we try the appeal process.”
“It’s a perfect storm.” – Jeff Welz
Marino and Stelman said that they understand why NHRFR did not want to hire from the judge’s list.
However, Marino did have another problem.
“They are claiming that the overtime is too much and that they can’t hire, but they promoted three firefighters to [the rank] of captain three weeks ago and made [the list of rank and file] short even more,” said Marino.
De Orio said that the three firefighters who were promoted did not affect the staffing levels.
“I don’t see why anyone would feel that hiring off of [the judge’s] list is going to solve our problems,” said De Orio. “Our biggest problem is keeping the minimum manning of three [firefighters per apparatus] and sending the same output of men to a fire scene. Those are the two concerns that the union should have.”
De Orio said that he is hopeful that their appeal will be heard in third circuit court this fall. He said that if the injunction is lifted, they will hire new firefighters from their list by January. He said if they could hire a new class and train them by next summer, the department would save on overtime costs.
‘Unions not helping’
De Orio said that the decisions they made in recent months about firehouses and overtime were meant to lessen the burden on the taxpayer while keeping fire protection as safe as possible.
He said that while the two union representatives have come to the table with complaints, they have never compromised on a way to cut costs, like reducing the number of vacation days taken at one time. While they deserve the time off based on their contract, De Orio said that closing companies was based on their inability to man them.
“They are getting between 30 to 35 vacation days a year,” said Welz. “They have not issued one iota of ‘how can we help’ as it was done in other communities having [economic problems].”
Welz said that many of the individuals at NHRFR would not have gotten their jobs if it wasn’t for a residency requirement, so it was hard for him to understand why they weren’t more strongly supporting the department’s appeal.
Tricia Tirella may be reached at TriciaT@hudsonreporter.com.