To seek volunteers or not? Fire director argues against Chiappone proposal

Saying the idea for combination department of paid and volunteer firefighters has been suggested before, Fire Director Patrick Boyle made his case for the city’s staying with a solely paid department.

This comes after a recent proposal by Councilman Anthony Chiappone that the city should explore a combination department in order to meet the manpower needs of the city’s fire department, while at the same time addressing a year budget deficit that has ballooned to $25 million.

The fire department, which is already 20 people below optimum operating manpower, may see the retirement of additional people over the next year, and could result in the closing of firehouses.

Earlier this month, the fire department was forced to close two firehouses because of lack of adequate staffing.

Chiappone said his research shows that only seven percent of the nation’s municipal fire departments have fully paid staffs. More than 70 percent are totally volunteer.

“Twenty-one percent have some combination of paid and volunteer firefighters,” he said. “This includes Perth Amboy, which is similar to Bayonne in many of the issues we face here. I’m going to be meeting with Mayor (Joseph) Vas to discuss some of the benefits and problems of a combined department.”

But Boyle doesn’t think inserting volunteers into the department will work.

“Historically, Bayonne once had a combination fire department,” he said. “When the paid/career department was first established in 1906, [we] had half paid and half on-call firefighters.”

The chief at the time did away with the combination department after less than a year for several reasons.

“The most pressing was the delay in response of the on-call fireman,” Boyle said. “For the most part, we have the same wood frame houses we had back then. And it is important to have people available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

The need for continual coverage will only increase with the construction of additional homes on the former Military Ocean Terminal (MOTBY) and elsewhere in the city.

“The Peninsula (MOTBY) is going from being an army base to a mixed use residential development with more than 6,000 new homes,” he said. “That means about 10,000 more people will live in Bayonne.”

Boyle said he doesn’t believe volunteers will be able to fill the gap and could increase response time to a fire.

“Volunteers have other jobs and may be working out of town when we need them,” Boyle said.

Even at night, response time slows because volunteers have to get to the station before setting out for the fire.

Boyle said this is not the first time Chiappone suggested using volunteers on the fire department.

“In 1999, he made the suggestion and found out it wouldn’t work,” Boyle said. “If it wouldn’t work in 1999, what makes him think it’ll work in 2007?”

Boyle also pointed out that firefighter responsibilities have increased during the interim, partly because of the attacks on 9/11, including training as first responders, in hazardous material handling, urban security, housing inspections, and training in weapons of mass destruction.

“We took on all these without hiring additional personnel,” Boyle said.

In response to this, Chiappone said it was important to revisit the idea because the municipal budget gap has increased from $6 million in 1999 to more than $25 million in 2007, and that he believes the move might help bolster the fire force ranks without impact on the taxpayer.

But Boyle said Chiappone’s proposal comes too soon, since the city has undertaken a study of police and fire needs that will report on what each department requires in personnel.

“The company has come in two different times, reviewing our records and our operations,” Boyle said. “Early in 2007 during discussions concerning the hiring of 12 fire fighters, Councilman Chiappone said the hiring should not even be discussed until a study of the fire department … was complete to determine by an outside agency what staffing should be in the department.”

“If the hiring of firefighters had to wait, why shouldn’t the discussion of volunteers also wait until the study is complete?” Boyle asked, also noting that Chiappone has more than once pointed to the fact that department heads know best the needs of their own departments.

“Why is Councilman Chiappone now making staffing and operational proposals concerning the fire department with no discussion or input from the fire director or the fire chief?” Boyle asked.

Chiappone said he was only making a suggestion for an area that might be considered.

“It is an option we might explore,” he argued.

email to Al Sullivan


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