JERSEY CITY – A dominant theme in today’s Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee hearing here is the growing reliance on mutual aid during routine fires, something the president of a major firefighter’s union called problematic.
The committee is hearing testimony on how budget cuts have affected public safety.
“We went from having a once in a year fire where we needed mutual aid, to incidents where we have a house fire or attic fire where we need automatic mutual aid,” said Bill Lavin, the president of the New Jersey Firefighter’s Mutual Benevolent Association.
Jersey City Fire Chief Darren Rivers also spoke of an incident in February when Hoboken and Jersey City both had major fires, and there were not enough firefighters to respond.
“When the city of Elizabeth responds to Hoboken for a fire, 11 miles away…when Montclair responds to Union City, there’s a problem,” Lavin said. “We have a serious problem.”
“We’re all so stripped down,” said Christopher Weiss, the deputy chief of the East Orange Fire Department. “We’re all relying on each other…now we’re getting to a point where I’ve had mutual aid come to a scene to assist with a search because we haven’t accounted for all the people in the building. That used to never happen.”
Troy Powell, a Montclair firefighter, said earlier this year his department was called to Hudson County, a trip of 38 minutes during a fire response. Powell quoted a state regulation that said it should take a fire company eight minutes to respond to a fire.
“Every department uses different size threads to attach to their hydrants,” Powell said, adding that the more municipalities rely on mutual aid, the more problems arise on the scene because of different operating procedures.
Ed Donnelly, a firefighter in Union, said the 2 percent property tax cap is “handcuffing municipalities” and causing firefighters to operate at “dangerously low manpower levels.”
“We have lost positions through attrition,” Donnelly said. “Municipal leaders are applauding the facts of no layoffs…but we’ve seen the mutual aid (system) misused and abused at alarming rates.”
Assemblyman Charles Mainor, (D-31), Jersey City, said he agrees with the firefighters in attendance that regionalization is not the only answer. Mainor used a financial example to echo his comments.
Before the North Hudson Regional Fire Department was formed, Union City paid $6 million for fire services. After the consolidation, Union City pays $18 million annually, Mainor said.
Many firefighters in attendance criticized the 2 percent budget cap on municipalities.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesperson for Gov. Chris Christie, issued a statement about the committee hearing.
“Municipalities and our cities have had to make tough decisions due to the economy and a decade of overspending that could no longer be sustained,” Drewniak said in a statement.
“That was the root of the problem, and Governor Christie has been a leader in addressing it by enacting reforms to save local governments millions of dollars annually, increase their efficiency and accountability and, indeed, to responsibly address public safety. More needs to be done, but the Legislature has refused to heed the calls of the Governor and mayors themselves to do more – like pass real reform of the civil service system and end sick pay abuse.”