HILLSIDE, NJ — Conditions and morale at the Hillside Fire Department continue to spiral downward as broken-down firehouses and apparatus seem to be the norm for the beleaguered department.
But a recent fire in the township, during which one of the HFD’s firetrucks broke down while fighting the fire and had to be towed from the scene, may have been a rude awakening for many who believed the issues were being addressed.
Hillside residents found about the fire after Jeff Albrecht, Hillside fire captain and president of the Hillside Firefighter’s Mutual Benevolent Association, Local No. 35, posted a public-safety announcement on the association’s Facebook page on April 10, the day after the fire.
“The HFMBA, Local No. 35, wants to advise the residents of Hillside of a serious matter of public safety,” Albrecht wrote. “Lives are in danger. It is common knowledge that the fire department has been in dire need of replacing its aged fire apparatus for many years, with little being done. How many people drive cars from 1987 today? Not many. So why is it acceptable for the fire department to be using a 1987 fire engine for your protection?”
According to Albrecht, the lives of firefighters were put in grave danger during the April 9 fire.
“Yesterday, while actively fighting a structure fire on the 1500 block of Maple Avenue in the township, this 1987 fire engine broke down, causing the firefighters inside to lose water while fighting the fire,” Albrecht wrote in his post. “Using this antiquated equipment put the lives of your firefighters in danger. This is of grave concern to the members of FMBA Local No. 35. The current state of the department is putting the lives and property of the residents we swore to protect in danger.”
Another fire just two days later had the department concerned as well, as they are down to almost no working apparatus.
Currently, the HFD has just one piece of fire apparatus to protect the entire township, a 1992 Quint, which Albrecht said is partially broken and unreliable.
“This is unacceptable,” wrote Albrecht. “The residents and taxpayers of this town deserve much better. We urge you to call your elected officials and demand that actions be taken immediately so that your firefighters can properly protect the lives and property of the people of Hillside.”
In June 2016, LocalSource reported on the deteriorating conditions at the HFD, citing apparatus in disrepair, firehouse walls and ceilings close to complete collapse, leaking roofs, duct-taped windows, and sewage backing up from the bathroom into the firehouse kitchen.
At the time, Albrecht told LocalSource that he had reached out repeatedly to both HFD Fire Chief Dominick Naples and Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson, but had received no response.
In a statement issued at the time to LocalSource, Garretson claimed that she was actively addressing the situation.
“My administration and I are in the process of addressing the state of disrepair of the fire houses, through the development of a capital fund and investigating options for repair or demolition,” Garretson said in statement last year. “As we do so, we must balance the safety needs of the firefighters and the community, as well as the financial resources required to remediate the conditions,” she said.
Naples had also released a statement to LocalSource last year, stating that, “We are working with the administration to replace fire apparatus and vehicles, refurbish or rebuild fire stations, and upgrade our technology needs,” and that “the process has already begun.”
Fast forward 10 months, and members of the HFD state that, in fact, none of the issues have been addressed.
In addition, said Albrecht, despite the delivery of a new fire truck last week, it is too little, too late.
“Nothing has improved,” Albrecht told LocalSource in a recent phone interview. “Nothing happened at Station 2 with repairs,” he said of the Hillside Avenue firehouse.
LocalSource reached out to both Naples and Garretson last week, who both had not responded to a request for comment as of press time.
Albrecht noted that another recent plumbing issue at Station 1, located on Hollywood Avenue, resulted in a sewer backup that dripped water onto fire apparatus.
Last week’s fire, said Albrecht, was a frightening example as to just how dire the situation is.
“The engine broke down in the middle of the fire,” Albrecht said. “They were stuck in there without any water. The whole thing goes back to no maintenance of the apparatus. A 30-year old truck should never have been in service. It should have been replaced. Here we had two close calls. It’s a safety problem for our guys because they got jammed up in there with no water.”
The new fire truck was purchased by the township — without the input of the department, according to Albrecht — in December, and had been sitting at the dealership until last week.
According to Albrecht, the truck does not fit into either of Hillside’s two firehouses, and that a structure is supposedly being built to house the new engine.
“There’s still no place to house it,” Albrecht said. “It doesn’t fit in either firehouse. They’re starting to excavate behind the firehouse.”
Albrecht said that despite asking Garretson about the possibility of squaring off the arched doorway at one of the firehouses in order to accommodate the new truck, the mayor never responded to the suggestion.
The engine is currently being housed at a local crane company.
A HFD firefighter who requested anonymity told LocalSource that Garretson’s response to Albrecht’s April 10 public safety post was to post pictures and a video of herself with several members of the department alongside the new fire truck on the township’s Facebook page. The entire posting was viewed by LocalSource for this story.
“Exciting News Alert,” reads the post. “New fire truck arrived in Hillside for fire department training today, and a groundbreaking for a new cement pad and pre-built structure will be completed soon in the rear of the firehouse on Hillside Avenue starting this week. An official video and truck will be on display at the upcoming township’s birthday on April 29, 2017, and other fun activities.”
In the video, according to the firefighter, duct tape holding a firehouse window together is visible.
“Our union has been writing for years and we get nowhere,” he said in a recent phone interview.
According to the firefighter, the April 9 fire was alarming.
“There was a loud bang, and firefighters inside the building lost water,” he said. “That put their lives in even greater danger.”
According to the firefighter, the hose lines from Hillside’s broken engine had to be reconnected to Union’s engine, which came as mutual aid to help fight the fire.
“The truck was towed from the scene of the fire and from Sunday through Wednesday, there was one half-broken Quint that hasn’t had a working aerial ladder in two years,” he said.
The towed truck is permanently disabled, according to the firefighter.
According to Albrecht, firefighters need to be trained on the new engine, which will take a few weeks.
“We got this new fire truck after the fact,” he said. “She rolled the dice this time,” he said of Garretson. “We had two close calls. The new truck should have been in service in January. We’re grateful that we have something new and we’re going
to make it happen, but we should have been asked for input. It’s sad. Everything that she says is, unfortunately, smoke and mirrors.”