South Orange and Maplewood reignite conversation about merging fire departments

New Jersey FMBA President Eddie Donnelly speaks against South Orange and Maplewood’s current plan to merge their fire departments at the South Orange Board of Trustees meeting on July 26.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Talk of a merged fire department that serves both Maplewood and South Orange resurfaced at the South Orange Board of Trustees’ first in-person meeting since the beginning of the pandemic. At the July 26 meeting, the trustees were joined by the members of the Maplewood Township Committee, and, while no action was taken at the meeting, the name for the potential new department was announced: If the merger goes through, the department will be called the South Mountain Regional Fire Department.

Nicolas W. Platt and Jordan Glatt, who were appointed in 2018 by Gov. Phil Murphy as the state’s shared services czars, attended the meeting. The two work with communities in New Jersey to combine services, in an attempt to lower taxes for involved communities. According to Glatt, 2,000 shared services deals have been made in the last three years; the South Orange–Maplewood fire merger would be one of the largest the pair have worked on.

“This shared service program will provide tax savings to the hardworking residents of our community,” Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee said at the meeting. “The plan provides balance, and, although the process is not done, we have worked and collaborated for years to bring us to this moment.”

Also at the meeting was Charles Jennings, a project manager from the consulting firm Manitou Inc., which wrote the report recommending the departments be merged in 2017. Jennings presented an updated report with information from the intervening years through 2020.

“The two communities are very similarly matched,” Jennings said at the meeting. “The bottom line here is that our expertise leads us to remain enthusiastic at the potential for both agencies to merge. It will create a higher level of service for both communities and enhance the number of personnel available on initial alarms.”

According to Jennings, the merger would increase staff responding to reported structure fires; SOFD currently has between six and eight responders to a reported fire and MFD has between eight and 10. A new department would send 14 to 17 personnel. According to Jennings, the department would also arrive at the scene of an emergency more quickly and be able to “provide a more effective initial attack, to suppress the fire and make rescues.”

“This enhances safety not only for the public, but for the responding firefighters,” Jennings said. “They have more personnel on scene, they are able to have personnel and readiness should someone get into difficulty during the early stages of a fire.”

Cost savings will primarily be achieved through reduction of personnel. There will be no layoffs; instead personnel will be reduced through attrition. One fire chief and four deputy chiefs will be at the top of the table of organization. The goal would be to have 71 employees in the merged department.

“This is not immediate satisfaction,” South Orange President Sheena Collum said at the meeting about cost savings for both towns. “It is thinking about the long term. To be clear, no taxpayer is going to get a tax rebate. These communities are investing in infrastructure like they have never done before. Cost avoidance is perhaps the most important thing that we’re trying to do. South Orange and Maplewood both had the highest tax levies that we had in the last 10 years post-pandemic, and we have to figure out a way to control this. We cannot continue doing what we are doing.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, former South Orange trustees Steve Schnall and Walter Clarke both said they supported the merger, as did former Village President Doug Newman. Also speaking in support at the meeting was Robert Sandow, the chairperson of the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee in South Orange.

“I understand that it is not only a cost-saving measure, but also a measure to improve service and really to integrate the fire departments in a way that would make response times better,” Sandow said. “I’m fully on board with this. I think it’s streamlined and removes unnecessary layers of management, and I think it’s very good for both municipalities.”

But local and state representatives from Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association unions expressed concerns at the meeting, as they have since the original report recommending the merger was released in 2017. Eddie Donnelly, the president of the New Jersey FMBA, said 71 people in the department is not enough.

“Never once did we say, ‘Don’t do this’; never once did we say, ‘Stop,’” Donnelly said. “We’ve consistently said, ‘This is not safe.’ There are grave concerns with the number 71. The number 71 does not work.”

In his public comments, SOFD Deputy Chief Michael Commins also expressed concerns regarding staffing levels for the combined department.

“No one supports this staffing level — none of the present chiefs, none of the past chiefs,” he said. “The Division of Fire Safety doesn’t support the fire department staffing at this level. The FMBA doesn’t support the staffing at this level.

“Merging the two departments wouldn’t be a bad thing,” he continued. “You want to do this with 71 in these two towns; I don’t see how you could support that.”