Costs and benefits of providing fire protection to Glen Ridge (Town Square)
By JOHN HERRMANN
Special to Montclair Local
Over the last several days I have read and heard various opinions regarding the bid that the township submitted to Glen Ridge for fire suppression and extinguishment services. There is a great deal of misinformation being put out and I write to provide facts.
First, I am incredibly proud of the women and men of the Montclair Fire Department. The uniformed personnel and civilian staff who support them, who report to work every day to protect the residents of and visitors to our township, are professionals in training and in dedication and it shows every single day in their work.
National Fire Protection Association standards set forth that, when responding to a report of a fire at a 2,000-square-foot two-story single-family dwelling with no basement and with no homes on either side that could be threatened by the fire, a minimum of four firefighters respond on each engine and a minimum of four firefighters respond on each ladder truck in addition to one battalion chief.
The Montclair Fire Department does its best to meet that minimum; however, given its current staffing levels even that is sometimes not possible. Frustratingly, our Fire Department is often compared to other fire departments when staffing is discussed.
What is often overlooked, naturally, is that our township has many multistoried business and residential buildings in its multiple business zones and residential zones. A report of a fire in one of these very large buildings requires a significant amount of resources and a timely response to ensure the preservation of life and property.
I will write that again: A report of a fire in one of these very large buildings requires a significant amount of resources and a timely response to ensure the preservation of life and property. Anything less than as quick a response as possible by a full complement of professionally trained firefighting personnel and required resources could result in the loss of life by an occupant or by a firefighter, and that simply is not acceptable.
Some have erroneously said that, in 1990 when Montclair and Glen Ridge first engaged in a shared services agreement, our Fire Department added firefighter personnel. Some have said 10 firefighters were added. Some have said more were added.
Neither is true. Here are the facts: In 1961, there were 82 firefighters in the Montclair Fire Department. In 1993, there were 82 firefighters. In 1999, there were 79 firefighters. In 2013, there were 81 firefighters. And today, there are 76 firefighters in the department. We have always been in that range and truly need more personnel even today.
To be clear, as fire chief and as one of the firefighters who responded to the first major fire in Glen Ridge at which a Montclair Fire Department captain perished, I will continue to advocate for the number of firefighters on staff required to safely protect the residents of and visitors to Montclair. I will not allow them or firefighter personnel to be put in jeopardy.
For decades, Montclair has been a party to the Mutual Assistance Agreement for supplemental fire assistance among every town in Essex County, commonly known as Mutual Aid. For decades, and as recently as this past Sunday, Essex County towns’ fire departments have come to Montclair residents’ aid when we needed them.
Likewise, Montclair Fire Department personnel are regularly dispatched to provide assistance to other towns when needed. It is true that the agreement permits a sending municipality to request reimbursement for aid provided. However, I have never received or even known of such a request being made. I cannot imagine Montclair making a request of a sister town for reimbursement, and I do not expect to receive a request from the sister towns whose fire departments were on Inwood Avenue on Sunday fighting the structure fire there.
In simple terms, it just would not be in Montclair’s best interest to withdraw from the Mutual Aid Agreement. It would be the definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish.
It is true that Montclair’s cost to provide fire suppression service to Glen Ridge is quantifiable. Using 2019 as an example (since it was pre-COVID), and using FEMA reimbursement figures for apparatus maintenance, fuel and depreciation and using current wage and benefits figures, it cost approximately $113,955.97. That breaks down to $46,166.01 for apparatus and $67,789.96 for personnel (including benefits). Again, those are actual costs using FEMA reimbursement rates and using salary and benefits figures.
Given Glen Ridge’s contributions to Montclair under the agreement, the revenues minus all of our costs resulted in approximately $772,062 in net revenue for the township in 2019.
I believe that the township’s multiyear bid is good for the township. It affords the township fiscal stability and, given the noted costs for the service provided, it is beneficial to both Montclair and to Glen Ridge.
A multiyear agreement would contribute to the department’s ability to recommend and to the governing body’s ability to consider and implement long-term financial planning, both in the form of collective negotiations for salary and wages and for capital improvements and expenditures.
I grew up in Montclair and lived in town for my first 26 years. I have served Montclair as a firefighter since May 4, 1981. I rose through the department’s ranks, serving as a lieutenant, a captain and as a deputy chief prior to being promoted to chief of the department in October of 2014 by then Township Manager Marc Dashield.
I am dedicated to protecting the township’s residents and visitors and I value the women and men with whom I work. I appreciate factual discourse and a fair exchange of ideas. I am confident that the facts that I have provided herein detail that the agreement with Glen Ridge is about saving lives and not about maximizing profit – and that is the essential nature of being a firefighter, as firefighters serve to protect and save lives – and that the agreement is beneficial to both Montclair and Glen Ridge.
John Herrmann is the chief of the Montclair Fire Department.