Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 25
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
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Fire Department Study Recommends Changes

Anne Levin

Princeton’s firefighters have long provided their services on a volunteer basis. But this time-honored tradition can’t be sustained forever. So concludes a study presented to a June 14 meeting of Borough and Township officials in Borough Hall by consultant William K. Kramer, a retired firefighter whose firm Kramer & Associates is based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Mr. Kramer made eight trips to Princeton during the past year to complete the analysis of Fire Department Operations. Calling the 120-page report “a real blueprint of what the fire department is right now and where it needs to go in the future,” Mr. Kramer said that plans should begin now for the day when many positions held by volunteers will eventually have to be replaced with part-time or personnel paid per diem.

“Princeton is right at the point where that [i.e. paid firefighters] might be an option, but not yet,” Mr. Kramer said. “Can the volunteer fire department remain? The answer is yes, with some creativity. But it needs continuous monitoring and continuous improvement.”

Princeton has three fire companies: Princeton Engine Company 1 on Chestnut Street, Mercer Engine Company 3 on Witherspoon Street, and Princeton Hook and Ladder Company on Harrison Street. All three operate out of the Mercer Engine 3 location. From that site, firefighters can now reach 90 percent of the structures in Princeton within five minutes, Mr. Kramer’s report says.

Mr. Kramer said he was impressed with the spirit and loyalty of the Princeton Fire Department’s volunteers. “I studied it from the inside out rather than the outside in,” he said. “I saw tremendous energy and enthusiasm. And you want to preserve that volunteer spirit.”

But the department should start using paid personnel when it is unable to respond to eight percent of calls, or, in the case of an actual structure fire, if there is no Princeton response within five minutes or vehicle on the scene within 10 minutes. Mr. Kramer said that although the volunteer firefighters are dedicated to their tasks, routine fire calls in Princeton frequently go unanswered and are left to mutual aid companies.

The study suggests that Princeton use paid fire staff, both in the Borough’s fire safety and housing inspection offices and in the Township fire official’s office, to help improve reliability and response times. Other municipal employees, many of whom hold commercial drivers’ licenses, could also be trained. Mr. Kramer recommended putting an engine on the campus of Princeton University or at the Chestnut Street fire station for use by Princeton University employees who are part of the Volunteer Associate Program for firefighters.

It would cost about $1 million a year for Princeton to hire 16 full-time paid firefighters, Mr. Kramer said. This would allow four firefighters, at $60,000 each, to be on duty at all times. He recommended the more cost-efficient measure of staffing the department with volunteer firefighters paid on a per diem basis during key hours. Four firefighters paid $15 an hour would be on duty eight hours a day, costing the department less than $200,000 a year.

The study recommends that Princeton eventually either build a new fire station or expand the one on Witherspoon Street, which would entail demolition of the older portion of the Valley Road School building. As suggested in the study, a new station in that location would have space to house equipment, improve the quarters where firefighters sleep, and a museum area to honor the history of the three fire companies. The report was accepted by the joint officials at the meeting, but no decisions will be made until the fire department provides feedback.

Resident Kip Cherry was among those who spoke out during the public comment portion of the meeting. A member of Save the Valley Road School Adaptive Reuse Committee, she asked the officials to consider all options for the building. The group has offered a plan to reuse the existing building, allowing community groups and non-profit organizations to rent affordable space in the building once necessary repairs are made and a new boiler is purchased.

The group will make a presentation to Borough Council at its June 28 meeting. The Princeton Regional Schools plan to review the proposal, along with a municipal proposal that would demolish the old building, add additional bays to the firehouse, and provide facilities for CornerHouse and Princeton First Aid and Rescue, at a special meeting on July 14.

Other Business

The fire report was among several topics covered at the June 14 joint meeting. CornerHouse and Princeton Community Television were granted extensions at their Valley Road School building homes after initially being ordered to vacate by the end of this month.

Also announced was a free shuttle service running Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays beginning July 6. The service will connect residents to several retail and community sites around Princeton. The bus is being called the Daytime FreeB, which distinguishes it from the commuter FreeB bus. Pickup locations will include Elm Court and Harriet Bryan House, the Suzanne Patterson Center, Spruce Circle and Borough Hall. It will also stop along Nassau Street and at the Princeton Public Library, Community Park Pool, and Princeton Shopping Center. The shuttle was inspired by the free bus that ran during the weekend holiday shopping season.

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