Even as Fire Chief Robert Cordes struggles to counter growing public criticism of firefighters' alcohol use, Town Hall said that some houses may seek to rent the rear portion of their facilities in order to avoid restrictions imposed by the town.
Under a town ordinance, alcohol use in public buildings is illegal. Drinking in firehouses - which are town owned buildings - is legal only if a permit has been issued for a private party. In the past, firefighters have been exempted from the rule, and in two firehouses, social drinking has been a regular event.
Earlier this year, two fire captains asked the town for legal opinion as to whether or not fire officials would be liable if someone was hurt as a result of a firefighter responding to a fire after consuming alcohol in a firehouse. The members of the all-volunteer fire department get a small stipend at the end of the year based on the percentage of fires they respond to.
A legal ruling issued by the town attorney, Frank Leanza, said that fire officials as well as the town could be held accountable, and the town asked for the fire department to come up with a plan that would ensure the safety of firefighters and the public.
Chief Cordes, caught between the handful of firefighters who regularly drink and demands from Town Hall to have it stop, came before the Town Council last month to present a plan that would prevent a possible tragedy. Under this plan, casual drinking in firehouses would cease. Any firefighter drinking during a party for which a permit was issued would be banned from responding to a fire.
No sooner was the plan made public then firefighters from his own firehouse in the North End held a party for which no permit was issued, seeming to defy Cordes.
Meanwhile, Cordes said that constant reporting of the situation has mislead the public into thinking the entire fire department is to blame.
"People are starting to call us all a bunch of drunks," Cordes said. "This is not true."
Public opinion may not be quite as dire at Cordes claims. Of about 15 people questioned outside the Acme last Sunday morning, only one person felt firefighters were being irresponsible with alcohol. Three had no opinion or did not know of the situation. But 11 people did say they were concerned about the firefighters' use of alcohol, although they disagreed on how far the town should go in limiting access.
Estimates of exactly how many firefighters engage have engaged in the practice of social drinking in the firehouses vary, although almost everyone concedes it is well under 50 percent of the 100 members, and possibly as low as 10 to 15 percent. Of the five firehouses, two are most prominent: The North End Firehouse on Paterson Plank Road and the Washington Hook and Ladder on County Avenue.
"I'm not willing to admit that we have a tremendous drinking problem in our fire department," said 2nd Ward Councilman John Bueckner, in whose ward the North End FireHouse is located. "This is what is being said, and I've heard there has been some drinking. But the reports may have been overblown."
Town officials across the country have been reluctant to crack down on abuses, partly because towns save money through volunteer service. Some fire fighters view drinking as part of the social aspect of the department and might not volunteer if alcohol was prohibited.
Bueckner said he had concerns about how the fire department would regulate which firefighter can report to a fire and who cannot.
"What are we going to do," he asked, "have someone on a fire scene checking, saying 'You can,' and "You can,' while another man can't? Are we going to give someone power to select who is fit? I think there is nothing worse than finger pointing."
While Bueckner said he wanted to make certain everyone on a fire scene is sober, he also wanted to avoid the perception of a witch hunt.
"We have excellent firefighters and I don't want to see anybody singled out," he said. "I don't know if we have a problem in the fire department. I know the perception is not good. Yet whatever steps we take, we have to have a lot of dialogue with the fire department."
Firefighters must support recent agreement
Public perception of local firefighters may grow worse because the latest proposal by some firefighters would get around the recently-approved policy restricting casual use of alcohol. The firefighters would have each firehouse rent space that is currently used for private parties. If rented, the places would technically cease to fall under the restriction set by town ordinance.
Town officials, however, have found this proposal uncomfortable, partly because they want to increase the public confidence in the fire department, and this proposal seems to be a way for the fire department to maintain what the town sees as questionable drinking practices.
"I'm not sure this is something that is going to fly with the mayor and council," said Town Administrator Anthony Iacono, who is also a firefighter.
Bueckner called the proposal "an interesting concept," although he said he would have to look at it more closely before he could comment directly on the matter. But he did say he wanted a consensus from the fire department. "We have an ordinance that says people can not do certain things in firehouses," he said. "I would like to see what they are proposing."
Bueckner said that infighting within the fire department may be a result of a perception by firefighters that regulations are "being shoved down their throats." While the fire chiefs met with the Town Council last month to formulate the policy, Bueckner felt the senior fire officers from each firehouse should have been included. "We need them all to buy into this in order for any plan to work," Bueckner said. "While the chiefs agreed, apparently many of the firefighters did not. That's bad. We need something we can all live with, something that is good for the fire department and good for the town as a whole."
Alcohol and drug testing may soon be required
One problem with the new policy is that the town would have to determine when a firefighter is sober and when he is not. However, the determination may be made easier if the Town Council succeeds in passing a set of rules and regulations providing for drug and alcohol testing of firefighters.
"Based on our ongoing meetings with the fire chiefs' office and the Town Council, it is apparent that there is a strong consensus of addressing drug and alcohol awareness in the Secaucus volunteer fire department," wrote Iacono in an April 27 memo to the mayor and council. "While New Jersey volunteer fire department members are not mandated for testing, there should not be any impediment to the department imposing testing along the lines of federal regulation."
Iacono said Chief Cordes and Battalion Chief Raymond Cieciuch have been extremely helpful in addressing the concern.
The rules and regulations would require fire department members to be free of alcohol and controlled substances when performing any safety-sensitive function. These rules cover everyone in the department, regardless of rank. The restrictions cover alcohol, illegal drugs and even prescription drugs where a doctor has advised against operating fire equipment.
A member is considered to be performing a safety-sensitive function during any period in which he or she is performing or required to be in readiness to perform his or her assigned duties, which includes the following periods of time:
All times at the engine house or firehouse, unless relieved from duty
All times driving a firefighting vehicle.
All times inspecting or caring for firefighting equipment, apparatus, implements or vehicles.
All times when in or on firefighting vehicles, even when not responding to a fire.
All times spent performing assigned duties.
Under the proposed set of rules, firefighters would be tested when a person has been accepted as a firefighter in conjunction with the standard physical examination. Anyone testing positive or who refuses to be tested will not be allowed in the fire department.
Existing members of the fire department will be tested when there is a reasonable suspicion of alcohol or drug use. Blood concentrations of above 0.04 would be considered under the influence. Anyone suspected would be suspended from sensitive duty until a test can be taken or a 24-hour time period has elapsed.
A member who tests positive cannot return to duty until he or she has been re-tested and found to have a negative result. That person must then be evaluated by a substance abuse professional and may have to take part in a drug or alcohol therapy program.
A busy week for Secaucus firefighters
A collision between a train and a car near Allied Junction and two fires in the meadows kept firefighters scrambling last week and put the town's Office of Emergency Management into action several times.
A 91-year-old Bergen County man, who may have been blinded by sunlight, drove through flashing railroad gate on New County Road on April 30 and was struck by a NJ Transit Hoboken-bound train. The car was dragged by the train for 260 feet, nearly into the tunnel of the under-construction Allied Junction train station before the train could stop. The man was killed.
Also on April 30, Secaucus fire units along with the town's fire boat responded to a meadow fire spreading along the Rutherford side of the Hackensack River in a spectacular blaze. The fire started when sparks from the wheels of a passing train ignited meadow grass. The smoke of the fire - which reports claimed could be seen for 20 miles - flowed over Secaucus in billowing waves as firefighters battled numerous small blazes, one which engulfed a riverside dock, another which spread to the roof of a building. The fire tied up traffic on Route 3 and the New Jersey Turnpike.
The day before, Secaucus had responded to another meadow fire on the eastern side of town caused by a cigarette tossed from a passing car. One Secaucus fire official claimed the flames traveled through the dry reeds at a rate of 30 feet per second.