In early 2014, the Saddle River Fire Department lost many of its volunteers. On February 11, 2014 former Fire Chief Ken Warr wrote that "the Saddle River Fire Department is not responding in compliance with any accepted standard of practice nor within a level to operate safely and practically".
This letter was not disclosed to residents - we had to use the OPRA process to obtain it.
We have watched in disbelief over the past few months as the Mayor and his majority bloc on the Council refused to discuss this issue publicly. At the March 2014 Town Council meeting, Councilperson Kerner said that she would vote for a budget larger than 2013 if all of the INCREASE would be allocated to the Fire Department. This proposal was ignored by the Mayor and the rest of the Council.
On Friday May 16, the situation deteriorated further with the resignation of the new Chief (Brad Stio) - the second Fire Chief to resign in 2014. In his resignation letter, Mr. Stio wrote "I can provide several documents which show our manpower numbers and the alarming number of calls that go unanswered". He also wrote that he was resigning because the Fire Department was "removed from the agenda to formally present this issue at the Council Meeting on Monday May 19, 2014". This is another example of the Town wishing to prevent residents from learning about important Town business; this time about critical Public Safety gaps.
It turns out that Councilman Jerry DeCrosta is the immediate cause of this resignation. Mr. Stio's letter indicates that he was told he could come and speak at the May Town Council meeting. This was part of the DeCrosta/Mastriano campaign's promise to "Bring the concerns of our Volunteer Firefighters to the community". DeCrosta and Mastriano were in no position to fulfil this promise. When the offer was rescinded, it led to the Chief's resignation.
The Way Forward
While it is interesting for residents to know how the current administration's political miscalculations have led to the resignation of our Chief, the only thing that is important is Public Safety.
For the past few weeks, We have been listening to residents and fire safety experts and we have had numerous discussions about what is best for the SRFD. We have learned that other Fire Departments (especially Upper Saddle River and Ho-Ho-Kus) have been responding to many calls within Saddle River. We are grateful for their efforts, but we know this is not sustainable in the long run.
If we were on the Town Council today, we would suggest the town consider the following:
Find a new Fire Chief with a track record of success who is committed to restoring the SRFD's volunteer base.
When Mayor Raia was elected, the SRFD was run by Brian Yates and Jake Kossowsky. The SRFD had its challenges as all departments do, but the volunteer group was strong. It is our understanding that they, like a number of their predecessors, left their positions because it was extraordinarily difficult to work with former Administrator Charles Cuccia. Mr. Cuccia is no longer a Borough employee. We understand that one or both of these two individuals are willing to come back and rebuild the Fire Department. We strongly recommend that the town seriously consider bringing them back. The town should also look at other former successful Chiefs from around the area if they are available.
Additional Money for the Fire Department.
Corinne Kerner made her spending proposal in March 2014 because she knew the Fire Department needed the help. Jensen/Schulstad are strong fiscal conservatives, but we believe that Public Safety comes first. Our town needs to strongly consider spending money on the following:
(1) More amenities to attract and retain volunteers. We have heard some creative ideas such as purchasing gym equipment or a golf simulator. We are open-minded to spending money after consultation with residents to see what would attract volunteers.
(2) Support and recognition to those neighboring Fire Departments who are carrying many of our burdens. Financial support for other departments should only be done if it can be done with proper humility and a positive spirit of "thank you". We believe this would be done on a temporary basis while our department is nursed back to health.
(3) Tax rebates or restructuring stipends for those Saddle River residents (or their relatives) who choose to bear the burden of volunteering for our department.
Restructuring the Fire Department stipend program.
Today our "duty shift program" creates adverse incentives by encouraging non-residents to spend the night in the Saddle River Fire House while not encouraging residents who can serve a night shift from home and be called out of bed on an "as needed" basis.
In the past, stipends were awarded to volunteers who hit various service level target "percentages" (based on meeting, drill and call attendance). This structure rewarded volunteers a greater amount based on their activity and did not favor non-residents versus residents. We think our elected officials should seriously consider restructuring the stipend program in this fashion.
Fire and EMS.
Fire and EMS are different but related municipal functions. We support Councilperson Kerner's efforts to create "backup" EMS services to supplement our existing Valley Hospital coverage. This may require Saddle River to spend taxpayer dollars to pay for the extra coverage. We believe such expenditures would be widely approved by residents and we support them as well.
We also think the town should seriously study the "de-coupling" of EMS response from fire response. Our town is small and often has a hard time attracting fire department volunteers, but paid EMS coverage is more readily available. Preserving the fire department so that it responds to non-EMS calls may be a smart "division of labor".
Long Term Solution
While we are focused on solving immediate service gaps, longer term arrangements must always be considered. We are proponents of a volunteer service for towns like Saddle River.
As it happens, there has been a vigorous discussion of whether Saddle River should go to a "paid" Fire Department model - though our elected officials have not bothered to inform residents about this discussion. Our former Borough Administrator seems to have been a proponent of a paid model for Saddle River as have other Borough employees.
It is conceivable that a "paid" model could be developed in which Saddle River might be part of a regional fire authority and we will listen to any solutions that people would like to present. That said, we currently don't believe a "paid" model for a town of Saddle River's size makes sense if done only for our town as it would entail an enormous tax burden and diminish, not encourage, community involvement. It would seem that all other alternatives should be explored and tried before a fully paid fire department is given serious consideration.
Now is the time for Saddle River residents and elected officials to come together to see how we can save our volunteer Fire Department.
We encourage anybody with good ideas to reach out to us and our elected officials and offer them. In addition to the significant public safety issues, reinvigorating this historic organization is something we should all strive for, and we encourage anyone with the time and ability to seriously consider joining.
Restoring our Volunteer Fire Department