Two towns approve automatic mutual-aid agreement for fire depts.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange Board of Trustees and the Maplewood Township Committee both approved moving forward with an automatic mutual-aid agreement, which will mean that the South Orange Fire Department and Maplewood Fire Department will begin training and responding to emergency calls together. Elected officials from both towns said the measure is not a binding step in the process of potentially merging the two departments to form the South Mountain Regional Fire Department, but it is a step toward consolidation. Talks of the merger had been put on hold at the beginning of the year to focus on the state of emergency brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One of the low-hanging fruits that we can start on is definitely the automatic aid,” South Orange Village President Sheena Collum said at the Sept. 14 BOT meeting. “This is providing a mechanism where our firefighters work closer together, start going on calls together, and that also expands into training as well.”

The departments will train together and respond to emergency calls with engines from both departments, adding to the number of firefighters on the scene of a call. Collum said the agreement, which she said both departments are in favor of, benefits everyone in the two towns.

“The more that we’re training together, the more we are familiarizing ourselves with each other’s structures,” she said. “Regardless of whether a joint meeting moves forward or it does not, this is a good practice. It is just an enhancement for overall public safety. It is hopefully an interim step, but regardless of what the step after tonight is, it’s good, sound public policy for us to be doing this with Maplewood.”

The South Orange BOT passed the resolution with a vote of 5-0; Trustee Walter Clarke was absent. The Maplewood Township Committee’s resolution passed unanimously at its Sept. 1 meeting.

“What we heard in all of our discussions with the fire department was, the faster you can get fire personnel to a fire, the safer it is for the firefighters and the better it is to protect the residents of that structure,” Committeeman Vic DeLuca said at the meeting. “This doesn’t meet the criteria of the efficiency that we would get through having a unified command, but it gets us into working together and getting better fire services for both our residents in Maplewood and those in South Orange.”

Committeeman Greg Lembrich agreed, saying that even if the merger doesn’t happen, the mutual-aid agreement is a good idea.

“We all benefit from this,” he said at the meeting. “I think we’d all be safer, and if it brings us a step closer to a consolidated department that can also save us money and achieve some other efficiencies, that’s great. Even if it ultimately doesn’t do that, I’m still in favor of this. Our fire departments are going to have to support each other.”

Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee said he has long been a proponent of joint training between the departments, given the large facilities that both towns house, such as Columbia High School, Seton Hall University, the South Orange Performing Arts Center and Winchester Gardens.

At the South Orange BOT meeting, Collum said the timeline of moving forward with the merger is unknown, because of COVID-19–related budget cuts. The towns don’t know how or when they will be able to get the money for implementation.

“Just with any merger, you’re going to have administrative costs, you’re going to have training costs, you’re going to have equipment costs,” Collum said. “Right now I don’t have an answer to that question, but I will say within the next week or so we will be indicating that we’d like to begin having those conversations again.”

DeLuca also said the towns will resume meetings about the merger soon.

“This doesn’t bind us to having a consolidated fire department,” he said. “We have voted to establish one, but it would have to work out for both towns, and that’s a major step that we have to continue to work on. It certainly is in the direction towards the consolidation. You get people working together, you figure out where the kinks are, you start training. That informs us more as we talk more about the consolidation.”