Firefighting home rule stirs a fuss
Repeal sought for law that governs deployment
Friday, December 26, 2003
BY TOM HESTER
After planes slammed into the World Trade Center towers on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, an untold number of New Jersey firefighters climbed aboard their trucks and raced to New York. Others simply threw gear into their cars and headed for Lower Manhattan, showing up alone or in small groups.
Few Jersey firetrucks were able to reach the scene. By mid-afternoon, a large number were idling in the Giants Stadium parking lot. More were at Liberty State Park.
Though well-meaning, these firefighters dashed from their towns without informing state or local emergency officials. Those officials said this left sections of Union, Middlesex, Essex, Hudson and Bergen counties without any fire protection that chaotic and tragic day.
In response, Gov. James E. McGreevey signed a bill in March putting state officials in charge of deploying paid and volunteer fire departments during statewide disasters such as a terrorist attack or a hurricane. The bill's sponsor, Sen. John Adler (D-Camden), said the "clear chain of command" prescribed in the legislation "may some day save many lives."
But with the law set to take effect New Year's Day, local officials and firefighter groups are now pushing for its repeal. They say it is a state invasion of the sanctity of the local firehouse that adds a layer of red tape when departments need to act quickly.
"The firefighters are offended that somebody in Trenton thinks he is in a better position to deploy fire personnel when they have been doing it for decades," said Beach Haven Mayor Deborah C. Whitcraft, who represents the New Jersey State League of Municipalities on the state Fire Safety Commission.
LeRoy Gunzelman, director of the Somerset County Office of Emergency Management, said the law "is too stringent," and there was no need to change a system of deploying fire departments that "works very well."
The deployment law puts state Fire Safety Director Lawrence Petrillo and a cadre of regional and county coordinators in charge of telling fire departments where they should be during disasters or when fire departments need help from outside their county.
It allows the state coordinator to call police to enforce the deployment plan, and levy fines of up to $10,000 for ignoring it. The coordinator also has subpoena power to investigate if something goes wrong.
"As a result of the incident in New York, we clearly needed to identify a better way to deploy fire department assets in the state," said Petrillo, who added that on 9/11, "the intent of the fire services was great."
State officials insist the plan, which Petrillo enacted on an emergency basis until the law takes effect, does not interfere with century-old mutual aid agreements under which neighboring fire departments join to fight local fires.
"In no way shape or form does this put us in control of running an incident," said Fire Safety Deputy Director Bill Kramer. "The incident commander is still in charge. Our job is to find him resources and to keep in mind not to strip a specific part of the state. We do not have the authority to be in charge (at a fire scene)."
The law, however, does give the state the power to deploy fire departments from neighboring counties. It sets up a system that favors deploying fire departments that have better equipment and a higher level of training.
This component has drawn the most criticism from fire chiefs who view it as overkill.
"The fear is not being able to rely on mutual aid," said John F. Lightbody, president of the New Jersey Fire Prevention and Protection Association. "Firefighters cannot see anybody coming in from the other end of the state. In a fire, seconds count. You do not want to sit and wait for somebody to come from out of town."
William G. Dressel, director of the League of Municipalities, which wants the law scrapped, said this provision attacks local mutual aid agreements. He said local fire chiefs should be consulted before new rules are drawn up.
"When you have a fire emergency, you help your neighbors," said Dressel. "The fire services should be allowed to decide locally as to who is in the best position to respond."
Petrillo said the rules are intended to ensure a quick and efficient response to emergency incidents where municipal fire departments require outside assistance. The state has not yet used the deployment plan.
Not all local fire officials oppose the new state law.
"There is a belief on the part of some people the act will diminish home rule, which I do not think is the intent," said Bergenfield Volunteer Fire Chief Gerald Naylis. "The point is to ensure resources get to a scene of a statewide emergency as quickly as possible, and prevent self-deployment. People take it upon themselves to go to a scene and help out, and quite obviously, that is detrimental."
Union Township Fire Chief Frederic Fretz said he has no trouble having the state determine where departments are deployed based on their level of training and equipment.
"You would not take firefighters who are used to fighting fires in one-story homes and send them into a Newark high-rise, and you would not send us (Union) to fight a West Jersey forest fire," said Fretz. "This is not a putdown. This is for the safety of firefighters and the safety of the general public."
Although some of New Jersey's rescue squads deployed on their own on 9/11, the new deployment law does not affect first aid units. The rescue squads have had their own deployment plan since 1937 prompted by the response to another historic disaster, the explosion of the German Zeppelin Hindenberg that killed 37 people at Lakehurst.
Fred Steinkopf, New Jersey State First Aid Council president, said 450 ambulances were mobilized from every county and responded to New York, the Meadowlands, Liberty State Park or other points on the Hudson River waterfront on 9/11.
"At the same time, we made sure communities back home were covered," he said.