Development activists and fire union leaders meet to discuss ramifications after Edgewater blaze

After the massive fire that engulfed and destroyed a waterfront development in Edgewater last month, the local activist group, the Friends of the Weehawken Waterfront, wondered if a similar tragedy could eventually occur at the proposed Roseland Properties project along the Weehawken waterfront.

The Roseland project is set to begin its first phase of construction any day now.

Last Monday, at the Good Shepherd Church in Union City, the FWW conducted a meeting that was attended by both state and local firefighters’ union leaders, to discuss what might happen if there was a fire on the Weehawken waterfront.

“Of course, our consciousness was raised by the Edgewater fire,” FWW President Doug Harmon said. “The attention has been turned since the fire there. We wanted to discuss what we could do about it, what our Planning Board should do to improve fire safety. It was an education for the public to improve fire safety.”

Larry Petrillo of the New Jersey Firefighters Association and Glen Michelin, who is the president of the North Hudson Firefighters Association, attended the meeting and gave a presentation about fire safety. “They discussed the problems with lightweight wood construction,” Harmon said. “That the fire wouldn’t have happened without certain construction materials being used.”

Both Michelin and Petrillo pointed out that they believe the current North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue squad is undermanned, that 600 firefighters should be manning the population area it serves, as opposed to the current squad of 307.

“They made a very technical presentation,” Harmon said.

However, Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner saw the meeting in a totally different light. Turner perceived the meeting to be a political ploy, pairing a group that is against the proposed $600 million waterfront development plan with a firefighters’ union that is in the middle of extensive and heated contract negotiations.

“They really should be ashamed of themselves to use the Edgewater tragedy to further their own anti-development goals,” Turner said. “They’re anti-development zealots. It makes no sense to assume that a fire happened in one place, so it will naturally happen in another. The Edgewater fire was an exception to the rule. There is a lot of other development along the waterfront. Have there been massive fires there?”

Added Turner, “Instead of reaching out to the fire officials in the know, they contact the union reps who are 100 percent against regionalization. We’re in the middle of arduous contract negotiations. And they recommend 600 fire fighters, which will cost an additional $50 million? Where do they think we’d get this money from without development? The whole thing made no sense.”

Harmon vehemently disagreed.

“The mayor is talking without hearing the words of the meeting,” Harmon said. “This was not about [not having any] development. We met to discuss the improvements on fire safety by a reduced development.”

Added Harmon: “We didn’t offer a postmortem of the Edgewater fire. Drawing the line to say we capitalized on the Edgewater fire seems absurd. This wasn’t just about whether it could happen, but to offer fire safety. Now, we know what to ask for, to tell planning boards what to look for to prevent a fire from spreading. I thought it was very informative. We had people from outside our group in attendance who believed the same.”

Not the same thing

Turner pointed out that there were different circumstances surrounding the battle in the Edgewater fire. For example, Edgewater has only a volunteer firefighting unit. They only called out to other volunteer firefighting units before finally making the call to the NHRFR after the blaze raged out of control.

Secondly, as part of its development agreement with both West New York and Weehawken, Roseland has already agreed to construct a new three-bay fire station along Port Imperial Boulevard on the West New York/Weehawken border. The idea of the new firehouse was reiterated at the last NHRFR meeting last Monday – just hours before the FWW meeting with the union representatives.

Harmon believed the FWW meeting had something to do with that.

“We do believe there is a direct cause and effect,” Harmon said. “We sent out fliers about our meeting and then they did come up with a plan.”


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group