The Maplewood Township Committee adopted a resolution supporting a Joint Exploratory Committee to merge the Maplewood and South Orange fire departments last night, as firefighters showed up in force to express concerns about proposed staffing levels.
Maplewood firefighters voiced their opposition to reducing the overall number of uniformed personnel from 76 across the two departments to 70 in the new, combined department. Their comments were respectful, but the tone was passionate and, at times, emotional.
Firefighters supported the fact that the new combined department would be civil service, meaning that Maplewood firefighters would need to be incorporated into that system; South Orange is already civil service.
Speaking at the meeting last night, Maplewood Fire Chief Michael Dingelstedt said he had put “his heart and soul” into protecting the community and his firefighters over 38 years of service. Dingelstedt expressed concern about the staffing levels but also suggested that the town could meet their stated goals through an automatic aid agreement to dispatch the two departments simultaneously.
Township Committeeman Greg Lembrich disputed the effectiveness of that proposal.
Lembrich asked Dingelstedt, “Why hasn’t joint training been happening between the [South Orange and Maplewood] departments over the last couple of years?”
Dingelstedt responded, “[In] my experience, it’s very difficult to establish a working relationship with the management in South Orange for whatever reasons.” Dingelstedt said that he was able to get much more responsiveness from other nearby departments; he also said that previous Maplewood fire chiefs had experienced the same issue with the South Orange Fire Department.
Lembrich, citing the fact that the two departments must protect one shared school district, said, “These two departments have not been able to work together… we need to combine them to get them to work together, because your efforts to have them work together have not been successful.”
Dingelstedt’s comments otherwise focused on the staffing levels proposed. Notably, Dingelstedt said he “didn’t dispute the fact that responding with a minimum of 14 is certainly better than the current 8 in Maplewood and current 6 in South Orange.” But he said that the staffing hadn’t yet taken into account important factors such as emergency medical staff and ambulance service.
Dingelstedt also said that town leaders had not met with him and South Orange Fire Chief Daniel Sullivan until this summer.
“Look around the room tonight,” said Dingelstedt. “These are the experts who do this job day in and day out. ” He urged the Township Committee to listen to firefighters and table the resolution.
Later in public comments, Eddie Donnelly of the state Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association (NJ FMBA) took to the microphone. His tone was much more combative than Dingelstedt’s.
“Take two sentences out of the resolution and we move on,” said Donnelly, referring to the staffing language.
Donnelly and Lembrich also got into a verbal tussle with Mayor DeLuca ultimately stepping in to calm tempers.
Referring to the recent South Orange municipal election, Lembrich said, “Your organization ran a vicious, baseless and conscience-less campaign in our community. You suggested we were indifferent to the health and safety” of our residents. “South Orange rejected your efforts by an overwhelming number. So the trust is not there. No, I’m not going to vote to take those two sections out.”
Donnelly countered by saying the ‘FMBA never came into Maplewood. Worry about your own town.”
He continued, “Political campaigns are tough. not easy. You gotta play the game. She [South Orange Village President Sheena Collum] won. We lost. … Please think about removing the two sentences. You don’t, we are going to wind up in South Orange next week doing the same. She’s going to follow suit. Where’s that going to get us? We’re going to get a block. I’m telling you we have a grave concern about staffing.”
Michael D. Martini, Maplewood Deputy Fire Chief, spoke on behalf of Maplewood FMBA Local 25 President Chris Ariemma. He said that firefighters were not standing in the way of the merger but didn’t want to be asked to “do more with less.” Martini said that the towns were growing and the joint department should grow with it.
Michael Commins, President of South Orange FMBA local 240, told the TC, “All I care about is being able to serve and to [do so to] the best of my abilities.” Commins talked about being one of the first firefighters on the scene at the Seton Hall fire where three students lost their lives and many more suffered life-altering injuries.
Regarding reducing the overall staff numbers, Commins said, “It’s only a couple of firefighters. … but is it really worth it?”
Ultimately, Mayor DeLuca thanked the firefighters for expressing their concerns but said their alarm was a bit premature, as the resolution did not lock in any staffing numbers. Rather, DeLuca said it was a statement of fact, documenting the discussions of the Joint Exploratory Committee, which is made up of elected officials from both towns.
In explaining the numbers, DeLuca said, “The minimum of 14 doesn’t change in either town. The 18 maximum goes to a 17 maximum. We thought that that was a reasonable goal and it was backed up by the Manitou report.” He added, “We put that information out a least a year ago. … We’ve heard more recently in our meeting with the unions and the state FMBA that there were concerns about the 70. [We’re] not going to negotiate in public, but we said that that is the framework that we are going to enter into these negotiations with. … If they come back with some different numbers, we will discuss that. … Put that on the table and we will discuss it.”
DeLuca continued, “The important thing in this resolution is the ‘be it resolved.’ That’s the action item.” DeLuca said the purpose of the resolution was to assert that, instead of Maplewood being the lead agency, as previously agreed, there would be a joint meeting structure as well as civil service.
The number of 70 number for staffing, said DeLuca, is the number “for now.”
The final number he said, “may be that 70. It may be different.”
The resolution passed unanimously as part of the consent agenda; Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee was absent.