The tragic irony was impossible to miss, critics said: Less than 25 feet from two buildings destroyed in a four-alarm fire in North Bergen was Engine Company 9 — temporarily put out of service by top officials of North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue.
Although the Kennedy Boulevard building owner pleaded for help, a battalion chief, a firefighter and a safety officer said there was nothing they could do: Their engine had been taken out of service and two firefighters stationed were reassigned as part of rotating closures aimed at saving money.
To their credit, the firefighters ran into the burning building and rescued the owners’ elderly mother — and a truck from a house four blocks away got there in no time.
Officials had great hopes for the regional team when it was created more than a decade ago. However, with fears for public safety growing, some critics are virtually begging new Gov. Christopher Christie or new U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman to send in their investigators.
A former member of the squad says the NHRFR spent more than $4 million for legal services, nearly $3 million for a public relations firm, and just under $3 million for a self-insurance fund — in essence, more legal services — in the organization’s first 5 years.
At the same time, the NHRFR has closed firehouses and laid off firefighters. Unofficially, the squad is down about three dozen pair of boots on the ground.
“So while there appears to be plenty of money to spend on lawyers and public relations people, there is no money to keep firehouses open,” said the former captain, Steven Winters.
An angered Fire Chief Brion McEldowney told CLIFFVIEW PILOT that Winters’ tirade “carries many false statements and does a great disservice to our fire department….Claims about lay-offs, firehouse closures, legal costs and public relations fees are all completely wrong.” (READ THE FULL STORY HERE: Chief furious with disgraced firefighter’s ‘false charges.’)
Officials with the NHRFR say they’ve frozen hirings while fighting a civil rights suit that forces them to hire from a court-mandated list of African-American candidates from several counties. The NHRFR wants a North Hudson residency list. Until that’s resolved, they said, no one gets hired.
Agency firefighters also have been working without a contract since June while both sides battle over what the brass say are necessary concessions.
Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, the NHRFR chairman, said response times still average under the four minutes recommended nationally — including the Kennedy Boulevard fire.
Turner claims manpower isn’t the problem. “I have always said we have too many apparatuses,” he said recently.
Turner made headlines when he recently banned firefighters from going food shopping on their shifts, citing a blaze years ago in which a home next to a Union City firehouse was destroyed because they city’s bravest were out getting something to eat.
It may be that soon residents hear more of the department’s policies and procedures. In one case, a firefighter allegedly scored so low on a promotional exam that the NHRFR created a new rank with a lower salary to keep him — then promoted him two levels within weeks before he later retired at an even higher rank.
If the allegations are true, that’s pension fraud.
Others allegedly received jobs without even taking civil service exams.
Many already were employed in township public safety departments — defeating the purpose of the regional approach in the first place.
Winters said he reported various violations while with the squad, none of which, he said, were addressed. Two involved blazes in Union City in which people were killed.
North Bergen, Guttenberg, West New York, Weehawken and Union City agreed to create the organization to serve one of the most densely populated areas in the country. The NHRFR’s coverage area is 10 square miles.
Click here to sign up for Daily Voice's free daily emails and news alerts.