Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 21
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
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Fire Department Study Considers Volunteer Vs. Paid Department

Dilshanie Perera

In order to maintain its all-volunteer firefighting force, the Princeton Fire Department will need to implement new strategies to recruit and retain new personnel, according to a recently released study.

The report, undertaken by consultants Kramer and Associates, considers the viability of continuing the volunteer tradition at the Fire Department versus the option of transitioning to a paid department to provide the necessary services. The analysis suggested that fire services and other emergency management services, including first aid and rescue, be regarded together in deliberations about the department’s future.

Director of Emergency Services for the Borough Mark Freda noted that the report details “what most people would have expected,” in its recommendations and cautions about maintaining a volunteer force. “I don’t think there are any real surprises.”

Discussions among Borough Council, Township Committee, and their respective staffs is expected, as is an internal discussion among Fire Department staff. Mr. Freda noted that Lead Consultant William M. Kramer would be present to explain the report at the public meeting.

Mr. Freda reported that the consultant “has said that the volunteer fire department is still working, but that right now it would be wise for the fire department and two towns to look at how to recruit and retain volunteers.”

Currently, 30 of the volunteer members are part of the “Associate Member” category of the department. The associate program began as a pilot in 2009 with members comprised of Princeton University students and staff who are able to respond to fire calls during normal work hours. Mr. Freda noted that one possible way of expanding the volunteer force would be to extend the associate category to 50 to 60 people.

“There are any number of entities in town that have a fairly large staff,” Mr. Freda said of institutions that could be approached to begin other pilot programs. He asserted that “trying to preserve the volunteer fire department” is “in everybody’s best interest.” Regarding fire facilities, the report indicates that the three fire companies should consolidate into one space. Mr. Freda noted that the current facility on Witherspoon Street would have to be larger in order to accommodate the entire department.

“Some money is going to have to be spent,” Mr. Freda predicted in reference to maintaining the facilities. “But at the end of the day, keeping the volunteer department viable is significantly cheaper” than the annual cost of the paid department. “We could provide the same quality.”

According to the study, the annual cost for one full time staff person is estimated at $60,000, and for a full-time crew of at least 3 people on staff in the 24-hour cycle, the cost would be $720,000. The expense for a crew of at least four people on staff throughout the day would be $960,000.

The fire department operations study can be found at princetonboro.org and a joint public meeting between the Borough and Township to discuss the department’s future is expected later this summer.

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