Scurrying to put their gear on, about 25 firefighters carefully avoided being hit by one of the trucks departing the station to Saturday night's six-alarm blaze on Bloomfield Avenue in Fairfield.
This has become a typical scene at the West Caldwell Fire Department.
Built in 1968, the department's headquarters at 6 Fairfield Ave., can no longer safely handle the increased sized of the fire vehicles and the growing number of now 57 volunteer firefighters.
"It's primarily a safety issue. It's something that needs to be addressed," Chief Charles Holden said. "The apparatuses are way too close together and it's too difficult to get around. When the guys are changing, it's a safety concern because they are changing right next to the trucks that are pulling out on the apron for us to board.
"It's just part of the shortcomings of a building that's now 42 years old. Apparatuses were a lot smaller back in the '60s. Our membership was a lot less. We probably had half of the guys we have now. This is for the safety of the members."
The apparatus bays currently hold two engines, an aerial ladder truck, a utility/rescue vehicle, a mini-pumper and a command vehicle all in the same area where firefighters suit up, the chief said.
According to Holden. who has been the chief for the past five years, the issue was first identified more than 10 years ago by former chief Jock Watkins, who's the current town clerk.
At the last council meeting on Jan. 19, West Caldwell Councilman Richard Otterbein introduced an ordinance that will allot $2.5 million for fire department renovations, which include expanding the facility to better accommodate the trucks, a changing area for the firefighters and the addition of a second floor that will primarily house a training facility, according to Holden.
There will also be several offices on the second floor, one of which will be for emergency management that will be used if the police department's communication system is not available, said Council President Joseph Cecere, who's also a member of the fire department.
"I usually get dressed in the back of Rescue 7 and if it pulls out and I'm in the way, it's going over me," he said. "I think it's important for the public to know that this firehouse will take us generations into the future. This is why we're going with this plan. It's not something that in 10 years we're going to need to put an addition on."
Council, which has a conference meeting tonight at 7:30 p.m., will likely vote on the ordinance following a public hearing on Feb. 16. Councilmen Cecere, Otterbein, Dominick Aiello, Stan Hladik and Thomas O'Hern each voiced support of the expansion project at the last meeting.
The ordinance reads:
An ordinance providing for the expansion and renovation of the fire headquarters building, appropriating $2,500,000.00. Therefore, and authorizing the issuance of bonds or notes of the township for financing such appropriation.
"Local finance law requires that we introduce an ordinance for a good-faith estimate value of the project," Otterbein said. "We need to do that in order to get the architectural and engineering work done. The architect and engineering work is a portion of what the total value of the project is. We are required by law to introduce the project at the fair estimated price. It doesn't mean the money that is allocated and is put under this ordinance will be spent immediately. It allows us to get the architect and engineering work done so we can proceed forward to bid to find out how much exactly this building is going to cost."
Otterbein said the town will also likely hire a firm to assist in securing a government grant to help alleviate the cost for the municipality.
"We will file for grant money from the federal government in order to see if we can get some assistance in funding the project," he said. "We are also talking and will be talking to firms, at least a firm that we know, that deals in working with the federal government in obtaining grants. We feel a grant will be of great assistance to us and we feel we are in need. We'd like to see if we can get grant money in order to get this project facilitated."
Hladik said he's spoken with firefighters from other towns that are also applying for the same grants, so he suggested moving forward as soon as possible.
However, some residents question the timing of the project, considering the economic climate that has resulted in the elimination of several township positions recently and the municipality managing a $1.1 million deficit.
"I've gotten some phone calls from residents. Their concern was that with these economic times with different things happening around the town, why go ahead with an expenditure like this?" Hladik said.
"The comment I explained to them and would like to make publicly is that there is no better time to do it. When you have a long-term capital improvement that needs to be made the time to do it is when money is cheap. Massive inflation I do expect to hit within a few years, so this would be the time to lock this project down."
Other council members agreed and believe the project will be an investment that will serve the fire department for generations.
"The fire department was built for obviously smaller vehicles. That's just the age of the department. The vehicles were a lot smaller then and that firehouse was able to fit all of them," said O'Hern, who's also a member of the department.
"Nowadays, the fire apparatuses are so much bigger, which is the cause of limited space. The department has also probably doubled or more in the size of manpower. Those are the two biggest issues. While I think this is a great opportunity and the timing is right and the safety concerns will be addressed, but it's also a great investment for the future."