Fire Consolidation: The Facts

 Background

In 2017 a consulting firm, Manitou, released a report on the elimination of the South Orange fire department as a part of the proposed consolidation of the fire departments in South Orange and Maplewood. The report has formed the basis for the process that South Orange Village President Sheena Collum has undertaken, in coordination with Maplewood Mayor Victor De Luca, to eliminate the South Orange Fire department and form a new fire department led by Maplewood.

Unfortunately, much of the conversation around “consolidation” has occurred in private and without the input of the South Orange’s firefighters. It was only with an election on the horizon that our firefighters were brought in to provide their feedback.

Claims vs. Facts:

Since this process began there have been many false claims, misconceptions, and inaccuracies contained both within the report, but also in the public conversations. Here are the claims vs. the facts:

  • False Claim: “Consolidation” will save $1 million while providing adequate emergency response coverage : Village President Collum has suggested on numerous occasions that the plan being discussed will save taxpayers somewhere north $1 million. A savings of $1 million, as the study indicates, is only possible if the number of firefighters stationed at the South Orange firehouse is cut from eight per shift to three per shift. 

     In the event of a fire, federal guidelines mandate a policy of “two in and two out,” which means that for two firefighters to enter a burning building, in as safe a manner as possible, two must remain outside in case the two firefighters inside run into trouble. If there are only three firefighters per shift in South Orange, the first truck on the scene would have to wait for a second truck from one of the Maplewood stations to arrive in order to enter a building in a manner that meets this standard, potentially placing residents in harm’s way. Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that the South Orange and Maplewood Fire Departments are already understaffed.

  • False Claim: “Consolidation” would give South Orange equal say over fire department operations and finances: The plan, as proposed, would effectively eliminate the South Orange Fire Department and hand over control to Maplewood as the lead agency. While it is true that there would be an advisory committee that would provide guidance, the ultimate authority would rest with Maplewood, giving South Orange residents less say over their public safety.

  • False Claim: The report claims that fire vehicles would be able to move through the Village at 35 mph: As anyone who has driven through downtown South Orange understands, at busier times of day traveling at 35 mph is not possible, even in the best circumstances. Because of this false assumption, calculations about the impact this plan would have on response times are flawed and unrealistic.

  • False Claim: The plan would preserve best-practices for hiring: South Orange is a civil service community. Civil service is a set of New Jersey State rules that prevent nepotism and favoritism while ensuring that new hires are made on merit. Maplewood is not a civil service community. Because South Orange’s fire department would be eliminated under this plan the new department would not be a civil service department. 

  • False Claim: The process has been inclusive and transparent: Discussions about this plan have largely taken place out of public view, so there’s much about the ultimate plan we still don’t know. If the process continues as it has, it’s likely South Orange residents won’t be given an opportunity to have their voices heard. In fact, our firefighters had not been consulted until March 18th when, based on our calls for added transparency, Governor Phil Murphy’s consolidation experts pushed Village President Collum to agree to a meeting.