Full-time Career Firefighters Help to Reinforce PFD, Boost Volunteers
By Donald Gilpin
Since hiring full-time career firefighters seven months ago, after more than 200 years as an all-volunteer squad, the Princeton Fire Department (PFD) has seen significant improvements in response times and full staffing of apparatus, and increases in active volunteers and volunteer hours.
“This is a tremendous report,” said Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert in response to Fire Chief T.R. Johnson’s annual report last week to Princeton Council. “The fire department has gone through major transitions recently. It has improved response time, and volunteer numbers are increasing. Wonderful report — reflects truly amazing work.”
Johnson pointed out that full-time staff, brought on board February 3, have made the PFD less reliant on assistance from other towns and have influenced the department in many ways.
“Career firefighters have had an immediate impact on ensuring there is sufficient staffing supplemented by Princeton volunteer firefighters,” he said. “It has encouraged our volunteer members to take additional duty shifts at the station, which has significantly improved our response times and virtually removed our reliance on mutual aid for the primary apparatus response.”
Emphasizing progress over the past year, Johnson continued, “The Princeton Fire Department has come a long way from a year ago. We are getting an apparatus on the road for every call in a timely manner, and, even with the challenges related to COVID-19, we are ensuring volunteer duty shift hours are being taken by all volunteer members. As with any department reliant on volunteers to complete our crews, we still have some gaps and are looking for ways to fill them. But our response times and crew sizes are significantly improved from a year ago.”
The fire chief’s Department Assessment and Review, delivered by Johnson and Deputy Chief Devin Davis, noted a 41 percent improvement in response time since February, with an average response time of seven minutes and 15 seconds in getting the first apparatus to the scene. Volunteer hours have increased by 72 percent in the past seven months, with 28-30 active volunteer firefighters throughout the summer so far,
and “lots of enthusiasm within our membership,” according to Davis.
This year, out of 394 calls, the PFD has averaged more than four firefighters on each call, responding with a “short crew” only three times, less than 1 percent of the time, as opposed to about 8 percent in 2016 and 2017 and significantly higher percentages in 2018 and 2019.
During Tropical Storm Isaias last month, the department responded to more than 30 calls in a 24-hour period, including two first-alarm calls.
Princeton Council members applauded the report and the PFD’s accomplishments. Councilwoman Eve Niedergang noted, “You have hit one goal after another. Congratulations in melding the new department of career firefighters and volunteer firefighters into a single cohesive unit. I also applaud your increased media footprint, an impressive achievement. I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished for our town.” Councilwoman and Fire Commissioner Michelle Pirone Lambros added, “This report is terrific.”
In previous years the PFD, like many volunteer departments throughout the country, had faced a shortage of volunteers that often necessitated calling for back-up from neighboring towns. In 2018 Princeton hired a consulting firm to conduct a study of the fire department. The consultants’ 2019 report included recommendations for improvements in response times, staffing, and recruitment, most of which have been implemented with positive results.
Career firefighters hired in February include Sal Baldino, Ryan Buckley, George Luck, Mark Sitek, Andrew Summers, and Keith Wadsworth.
“The career firefighters have been able to make sure we have leadership and guidance at the station to ensure all tasks and training of newer volunteer members are a success,” said Johnson. “In addition, they ensure that equipment and apparatus are ready to respond to emergencies and give leverage to the department’s line officers to ensure any challenges are addressed in a timely manner.”
Individuals interested in volunteering for the PFD should visit princetonnj.gov or call (609) 497-7637.