Bridgeton fire, rescue merger model in N.J.
By JOHN MARTINS Staff Writer, 856-794-5114
BRIDGETON - In a city often known for all the wrong reasons, there is finally some acknowledgement that something has been done right.
At a City Council meeting Tuesday, council members were delighted that officials from Newark recently turned to their small, sleepy city for information on how it successfully consolidated its fire and rescue departments.
For Councilman Nick Salvatore, the inquiry - as informal as it was - shows Bridgeton can serve as a model for other municipalities.
"The city of Newark is the largest in the state," Salvatore said Wednesday. "And here we are, a 6-square-mile town in obscure southern New Jersey, and they're calling down here. And I thought, 'Gee whiz!' I just thought it needed to be shouted out."
A big transition
What Newark apparently hoped to learn more about was how the fire department managed to combine two separate units - each with its own personnel, equipment and operating procedures - into one cohesive whole.
The effort began locally two years ago, and it has since continued to take shape, often away from public view. It may seem like a minor change, but Fire Chief Dave Schoch said it has been a difficult task to reach a standard shared by fire agencies across the country.
The fact that Bridgeton is perennially short on cash - like Newark, it is enrolled in a state aid program formerly known as the Distressed Cities program - made it even more difficult.
"It was a big transition for us," Schoch said. "It had to be done. Just because you're a 'distressed city' doesn't mean you don't have to provide the service."
When Schoch joined the Fire Department in 1999, 12 firefighters were on staff. The city's rescue services were split into two units: A paid staff worked one shift and a volunteer staff worked the other.
That setup, Schoch said, posed problems. Because of a reliance on volunteers during certain hours, manpower shortages were common. There also were inconsistencies in how each rescue unit tracked incidents and how completely they billed for services. Professional development was not high on either department's priority list, either.
The transition began in earnest Feb. 1, 2007, and the Bridgeton Fire Department of today is far different.
The organization now has 64 members, which includes both firefighters and emergency medical technicians, or EMTs. That number also includes 10 volunteers, three volunteer fire police and 16 part-time EMTs.
The line between firefighters and EMTs also has blurred. All 21 firefighters are cross-trained as EMTs, and 18 of the 30 full- and part-time EMTs are trained to fight fires.
All fire engines are equipped with data terminals, which carry information such as images of structures and pre-planned firefighting strategies. The department's fleet, which was expanded to include four new ambulances, also features a pair of boats for water rescues. The department also has a dog trained to sniff out accelerants.
The transition, Shoch said, involved four major changes: combining the two departments' operations; hiring new personnel; reorganizing the command structure; and opening a second station on the west side of the Cohansey River for improved response time. That all four tasks were completed successfully in two years is something of which he and his staff should be proud, Shoch said.
"That's a pretty good feat," he said, adding that he was grateful for the city's support throughout the process.
Higher revenue, costs
The amount of money the department makes has also grown. In the full year before the transition went into effect in 2007, the city's emergency services generated about $228,000. In the six months after, Schoch said, the new department made more than $500,000.
"We were doing better-quality reports," he said, adding that the city went from paper to digital billing, reducing the paper cost.
The city also took on contracts with three neighboring townships - Hopewell, Stow Creek and Greenwich - to provide emergency services on a 24-hour basis. The largest contract, with neighboring Hopewell, earns the city about $25,000 per year.
A change this big has not come cheap, though. Salaries were increased to be competitive, and new uniforms and training courses also are pricey. To offset that cost increase, the city raised the amount it charges for rescue services. Schoch said he also has used federal money to finance some improvements.
"You have to improvise sometimes, be creative," he said. "We're too big to be small and too small to be big. We're right there, teetering."
A fire is a fire
Retired Vineland Fire Chief Peter Finley, who is president of the New Jersey Career Fire Chiefs Association, said the work being done in Bridgeton has become commonplace in fire departments across the country.
"It's the standard, but not so much in the Garden State," he said.
Such consolidations have taken place in a few New Jersey cities, such as in Cherry Hill, Camden County, and the Cape May County cities of Wildwood and Ocean City. Finley also predicted such consolidations will become more common.
When asked about Newark's newfound interest in Bridgeton, Shoch said he was somewhat surprised by the attention.
"I thought, 'Why is a town as big as Newark calling us?'" he said. "But I know why. We're doing the same thing, just with different names and faces. A fire is a fire is a fire."
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