Jersey City Freeholder Bill O’Dea (D-2), one of many rumored mayoral candidates for 2017, told the city council that taking Jersey City Fire Department rigs off-duty is creating a major safety hazard.
“The item that I’m here to speak about today is an issue of concern to fire aid of a particular avenue, so the city does not have to spend any overtime either on additional firefighters or active fire captains. I have a severe concern about that,” began O’Dea, who served on the council himself between 1985 and 1993.
“I did some research on the issue: there are often as many as four rigs taken off-duty. And almost exclusively, those rigs are in the area of Montgomery Street … south.”
O’Dea continued that the rigs run through the areas where Councilwoman-at-Large Joyce Watterman, Ward B Councilman John Hallanan, Council President Rolando Lavarro, Ward A Councilman Frank Gajewski and Ward F Councilwoman Diane Coleman live.
“Almost exclusively, these rigs are being taken off-duty to avoid paying any overtime in the area where the majority of the members of the city council reside.”
O’Dea added he was texting with Lavarro less than an hour before a three-alarm fire on Ege Avenue broke out last month, further stating that one of the fire rigs at Kearny Avenue was off-duty that day.
Three days earlier, a fatal house fire occurred on West Side Avenue, which O’Dea said could be attributed to the fact that a water pump was off-duty – causing a slight delay to the department’s response time.
“In the streets, that had to wait for a water pump to come, which took an additional three, I’m sorry, four-and-a-half minutes, to get there. Again, do I know if that life would’ve been saved in four minutes? I can’t tell you,” reflected O’Dea.
“But it boggles my mind, in such an instance like that, occurs … if you can’t leave all four companies back because of budgetary issues, I’m asking this council, and your public safety committee, at least get a report from this administration for what it takes per company.”
The freeholder also said that rigs require four people to operate, so one rig is often put off-duty, causing all the remaining rigs to have five people instead of four – only having to pay one firefighter overtime.
He added that he wasn’t necessarily being critical of the current council, since this practice has been in effect since Brett Schundler was mayor, who served between 1992 and 2001.
Ward C Councilman Rich Boggiano, a retired city police officer, later suggested that O’Dea set up a meeting with Public Safety Director James Shea on the matter, which O’Dea said he had attempted to do via text message but had not heard back yet.
City spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill said the city agrees with O’Dea and is working to address the issue.
“We agree with Bill and have expanded the number of companies operationally to be at a point that is larger than any point in the previous administration,” she wrote in an email. “While this has been a practice dating back almost 20 years we are actively working to change it.”
“We are always at 22 companies which is the safe minimum. Companies can be closed for a multitude of reasons (mechanical, training, manpower, etc). We never close a firehouse or allow our manpower to go below a safe minimum. We are actively working to close loopholes in the contract that allows excessive absenteeism.”