The National Fire Protection Association recommends that each piece of firefighting equipment sent to a fire be manned by a four man team, and that each town has a system in place to get fifteen firefighters to a fire scene in less than twelve minutes. Unfortunately, politically motivated budget slashing and austerity measures such as forcing volunteer firefighters to pay for their own equipment and fuel for fire trucks has had a major impact across the country, and even here in New Jersey.
ON May 5th, 2011, a six-alarm fire broke out that completely gutted Ferraro’s, a landmark Italian restaurant in Westfield, NJ. The Westfield, NJ fire department’s main firehouse is located just one hundred yards away from Ferraro’s, but its ladder truck, capable of pumping 1,100 gallons of water per minute, was not usable due to understaffing. The first ladder truck on the scene came from neighboring Cranford, NJ, and took a full twelve minutes to arrive.
Earlier this year, a house fire broke out in Westfield when only six firefighters were on duty; worse, three of them had gone to provide support to Springfield’s fire department. The three firefighters available could only fight the fire from outside because of New Jersey’s “two in, two out” rule, which states that two firefighters must remain outside for every two who enter a burning building, excepting to save a life. Without being able to enter the building and attack the blaze directly, extinguishing a fire can take significantly longer.
On May 23rd, the Westfield Fire Department was forced to wait fifteen minutes for firefighters from Plainfield, NJ to arrive before providing assistance to Ellen DiIorio and her husband, who had to be rescued by neighbors from a fire that destroyed her home. An emotional DiIorio later spoke before the Westfield Town Council, asking them to restore the town’s firefighting team to full strength. “I’m here to plead with you that we could have enough firefighters in Westfield to avoid a possible loss of human life,” she said. “I love the town of Westfield, and I loved my home, and I can never go home again.”
Vice Chairman of the Westfield Public Safety Committee Councilman Keith Loughlin (R), however, sees no problem. “I don’t consider us to have a manpower shortage,” he said. “We are adequately staffed.” Westfield Mayor Andy Skibitsky (R) agreed, pointing out that the town receives plenty of help from its neighbors. According to Loughlin, it costs the city $100,000 per year to hire a new firefighter, including training. This, along with declining revenue from taxes and decreases in state aid, has resulted in a hiring freeze and a 25% cut in the number of public workforce jobs in every role from firefighters to crossing guards to police officers to town hall custodial workers.
Westfield is currently applying for a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) federal grant that would allow the town to hire four more firefighters for at least two years. However, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has expressed his opinion that funding for firefighters, police officers, and teachers be cut in campaign speeches; it is unclear how, if elected, his presidency will affect the SAFER grant system, and the town of Westfield, NJ.