HILLSIDE, NJ — They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. And when it comes to conditions at the Hillside Fire Department, the adage may be true.
According to Jeff Albrecht, Hillside fire captain and president of the FMBA Local #35, the conditions at the department are dangerous and downright appalling.
Diminished manpower, working without contracts, and wasted revenue are just some of the issues ailing the department. Apparatus in complete disrepair, firehouse walls and ceilings close to complete collapse, leaking roofs, and sewage backing up from the bathroom into the firehouse kitchen add to the troubles that have many at the department fed up.
Albrecht believes that the current situation at the department puts the firefighters and the citizens of Hillside in harm’s way. “Our manpower is down members due to retirements and not hiring,” Albrecht told LocalSource. “The apparatus is in complete disrepair due to primarily a lack of a regular maintenance program.”
According to Albrecht, a 25-year veteran of the department, the department staffs an engine, Quint — a combination engine and ladder truck, ambulance and deputy chief vehicle as front-line apparatus. “The Quint 1 is 24 years old and has major issues with it,” said Albrecht. “The aerial ladder has been out of service for over a year now. We can’t use the ladder because the hydraulic system doesn’t work, and the hydraulic system has been leaking for years with nothing being done about it.”
Albrecht said that he has reached out to both the mayor and the fire chief but with no success. “The union has written letters to the chief and mayor about these issues and they have all gone unanswered,” said Albrecht.
Albrecht said that an inspection of the department was done in 2015 — eight years after the last inspection. “The last test they did was in 2007, and this should be done yearly to test the ladders,” said Albrecht, who said that one of the ladders was found to have cracks throughout. “Due to these mechanical issues, they took it out of service in April, 2015. This limits our ability to make rescues from buildings three stories or higher, which directly puts the public and the firefighters in jeopardy if we had to perform any type of rescue or to conduct any type of fire-ground operation. There is no contingency plan by the chief other than to wait until mutual aid gets on scene at all emergency operations that we need an aerial for,” he said.
In a statement made by Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson — sent to LocalSource by Hillside business administrator Stephanie Bush-Baskette — Garretson stated that she had taken a tour of both firehouses. “Fire Chief Naples and members of the Hillside Fire Department took me on a tour of both firehouses and I was pleased to be joined by the business administrator, Dr. Baskette, as well as a representative of DPW,” said Garretson. “We did a thorough tour of the interior and exterior of the fire houses. We were shocked to see the extent of the conditions that have gone unaddressed for more than a decade. 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. 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.
Bush-Baskette reiterated that the Garretson administration is addressing the department’s concerns. “The mayor and her administration are aware of the issues,” said Bush-Baskette, who recently took a tour of firehouse #2, located on Hillside Ave., with Garretson. “We were really shocked at the state of disrepair. This has been going on for at least 10 years. We know something has to be done.”
Bush-Baskette said that she and Garretson are currently working with Fire Chief Dominick Naples in developing a capital fund that will help pay for issues with the fire apparatus. “We are on it,” said Bush-Baskette. We’re exploring all of the options and the best way to serve the fire safety of the residents of Hillside.”
According to Naples — in a statement also sent to LocalSource by Bush-Baskette — a plan to mitigate the issues has already begun. “The Hillside Fire Department is currently evaluating and prioritizing our capital infrastructure needs with the mayor, business administrator and finance department,” said Naples. “We are working with the administration to replace fire apparatus and vehicles, refurbish or rebuild fire stations, and upgrade our technology needs. The process has already begun.”
Vincent McClave, who has been with the department for 23 years, said that the department has not received any new equipment since he began there more than two decades ago. “Our equipment is in desperate need of repair,” said McClave. “Our backup engine is from 1986, and our Quint 1 aerial ladder has been out of commission for over 400 days. If someone were on the third floor of a building, we couldn’t rescue them.”
McClave said that there is no regular maintenance schedule for the equipment. “When we go on calls, I’m sure it’s on every guy’s mind — is this the day this piece of equipment is going to go?”
According to both Albrecht and McClave, a leak in the Quint’s pump has caused firefighting operations to be delayed, fires to spread and occupants trapped in the building to be endangered, as well as the firefighters.
Another member of the department declined speaking to LocalSource, citing fear of retaliation by Garretson.
According to Albrecht, myriad other issues with the engines, including a leaking water tank on one of the trucks and brake and power steering issues, have resulted in trucks being out of commission for extended periods of time. “Engine 2 went out of service on April 24 and sat idle in the firehouse for two weeks with nothing being done before it was sent out for service,” said Albrecht. “This being allowed to sit was unacceptable. Engine 2 carries all our specialty equipment like on board extrication equipment, struts, foam, high-angle rescue equipment, rope rescue equipment, cribbing, wedges and air bags. By not having this rig in service, it hampers our efforts to provide quick and immediate service or rescue.”
In addition, Albrecht maintains that long-vacant positions are depriving the department of vital training and inspections practices. “Due to the lack of a fire prevention inspector position, inspections haven’t been getting done in a timely manner,” said Albrecht. “The state came in and audited the bureau last year and found deficiencies and said to make corrections or they would take it over. The chief had the fire official come in on overtime to get the needed inspections done to show the state we were trying to get them done. And this is still the practice today. This was unnecessary money spent if the position was filled permanently,” he said.
Albrecht maintains that the position of training officer has been vacant since 2013. “The training officer position is a vital position,” said Albrecht. “He is in charge of training all probationary firefighters, continuing education for all personnel, scheduling certification and re-certification for all EMTs, coming up with daily, weekly, and monthly training for all personnel, training on all PEOSHA and state-mandated yearly training, and all record-keeping of that training. The chief has had a deputy chief do all mandated training on overtime since the retirement of the training officer in 2013, which I believe has cost unnecessary money than if a training officer was staffed. I have no idea who is keeping the records now without the position,” he said.
Albrecht told LocalSource that the physical conditions at the firehouse are unsanitary and hazardous. “The condition of the firehouses is deplorable, especially at Station 2, which is on Hillside Ave.,” said Albrecht. “It has many issues. There are walls that are literally falling down and causing dust and unknown breathing hazards from building materials made in the early ’60s. Ceiling tiles are falling down throughout. Paint is peeling and falling, and there is a leaking roof, plumbing issues, floor tiles are coming up, and windows are being kept closed with duct tape. All these issues have had a negative effect on morale,” he said.
McClave said that the duct-taped windows make the firehouse cold during the winter, but that missing window screens make it difficult during the warmer months. “We can’t have the windows open or we’ll be sleeping with the flies,” said McClave.
McClave said that he does not think the issues will be dealt with anytime soon. “I’m not holding my breath,” said McClave. “I don’t see a whole lot being done. I understand that times are tough, but these are safety issues for the taxpayers in town and for the firefighters.”