Maplewood, South Orange fire department merger appears to be working well, leaders say

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MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange and Maplewood fire departments were dissolved and combined into the South Essex Fire Department on July 1, finally ending a yearslong saga that saw debate over whether or not the two departments should become one. The merger was finalized in April, when both the South Orange Board of Trustees and the Maplewood Township Committee passed resolutions authorizing the towns to form a regional fire service; the first joint meeting was held on April 8.

Now, more than one month into the merger, things appear to be going well.

“Everything went fine,” Chief Joe Alvarez, formerly of the MFD and one of the SEFD’s two current chiefs, said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Aug. 3. “The firefighters have been training with each other every day so far, and there’s been no issues. We’ve had a large number of fire calls this summer, and they’ve all been responded to with no issues in the operation.”

The merger took nearly five years to complete. The initial report exploring the possibility of creating one department was written by the consulting firm Manitou Inc. in October 2017. It was updated several times before the towns decided to move forward in 2019, but then the COVID-19 pandemic caused delays. Talks about the regional department reignited in 2021 despite opposition from the local and state firefighter unions, which said the staffing levels would be too low. The plan released by the towns did not include laying off any firefighters; no firefighters have been laid off.

The SEFD remains with 76 firefighters for now, including both Alvarez and former SOFD Chief Daniel Sullivan. Eventually, the department will settle into a staff of 72, with the elimination of a chief and three deputy chiefs through attrition.

“There was a lot of doom and gloom, but it’s working,” Alvarez said. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that.”

South Orange Fire Unions Local 40 and 240, which were strong dissenters to the merger, did not respond to a request for comment by press time on Aug. 9.

South Orange Village President Sheena Collum, a longtime supporter of the regional department, said in an email to the News-Record on Aug. 3 that she is happy with how the first month of combined operation has gone, especially considering the large number of fires in the area that the SEFD has had to respond to this summer.

“Overall, I’m incredibly pleased with the first month of operations. As expected, the new South Essex Fire Department has more firefighters available for calls and continues to show a great deal of professionalism and care for both communities,” Collum said. “I’m very confident the residents of both South Orange and Maplewood have not seen any disruption to fire services and am grateful to Chief Sullivan, Chief Alvarez and Deputy Chief (Michael) DeMartini for their leadership during this transition.”

Collum chairs the SEFD Management Committee. Maplewood Committeeman Frank McGehee and former Maplewood Committeeman Greg Lembrich are the other two members; South Orange Trustee Bobby Brown and Maplewood Deputy Mayor Vic DeLuca are alternates.

“This is historic,” McGehee said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Aug. 4. “It’s going very well. I can’t say enough good things about the firefighters and the leadership.”

Both Alvarez and McGehee said that the merger has allowed the department to send more firefighters to the scene of a fire than the separate former departments would have been able to send.

“We responded to a small fire at Seton Hall, and we would have had between six and eight,” Alvarez said about the number of firefighters the former departments would have sent out on a call. “Now there’s 14. That’s a game changer, because there’s strength in numbers. Everyone has a task, and it’s running smoother.”

In fact, McGehee said the department is looking to hire more firefighters.

“We’re bringing more firefighters in,” he said. “We’ve been working on this for five years, and to see it come together and work really makes me happy. It’s seamless, and that’s what we want at all levels of government.”

According to Alvarez there are still details to work out, because the two departments had some differing policies, but for now it’s smooth sailing. Both South Orange and Maplewood have given Alvarez, Sullivan and the other leaders in the department the support they’ve needed so far.

“Our job is to adapt; that’s the nature of the job,” he said. “We’re making it work. The towns have given us a lot of support. Anytime we’ve asked for equipment we’ve been able to get it. There’s been no road bumps, so hats off to them.”

Most important, though, is that morale within the SEFD is high, and Alvarez said residents know that they and the firefighters who respond to a scene are safer now that there are more firefighters responding at any given time.

“They’re sponges for knowledge and want to learn,” he said of the department’s firefighters. “To see them pull up and know they’re a lot safer makes me feel good, and our residents as well. Eventually we’ll need more companies because things are growing, but for now it’s going well.”

Photos Courtesy of South Essex Fire Department