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Fire Chief Appeals to Borough Council For Help With Finances, Recruitment

Matthew Hersh

In a rare emotional display, members of the three companies that compose the Princeton Fire Department implored the members of Princeton Borough Council and Princeton Township Committee to act — and act quickly — on the issue of the department's waning volunteer base, and the increasing need for annual funding.

The September 27 presentation occurred only days before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Friday announcement that the Princeton Fire Department would receive $156,263 as part of a program that offers national assistance to fire departments.

The PowerPoint presentation, delivered by Chief Pat McAvenia, was also designed to urge the two municipalities to come up with a program that will assist with both the recruitment, and the retaining, of firefighters. Efforts up to now have yielded some minor success, the chief said, but have not signalled any kind of long-term viability for the Department's three units, Mercer Engine #3, Engine Company #1, and Princeton Hook & Ladder.

The chief also indicated that a majority of calls answered by the fire department are either false alarms or minor, rather than major, fire events, but he added that the minor events could, at some point, compromise the availability of fighters who would normally attend a major fire.

However, while Chief McAvenia indicated a need for improved recruitment, he emphasized that department has not yet reached the crisis stage in regard to service of the community.

Of the 129 members of the entire department, 36 are active, 18 live out of town, 19 work out of town, with 17 attending to "most" of the fire calls, according to Chief McAvenia's report. Fighters live in area municipalities as far away as Falls Township, Pa. Requirements dictate that firefighters must live within 12 miles of the University Medical Center at Princeton, or work in Princeton.

David Goldfarb, himself a former seven-year member of the department, asked Chief McAvenia if it would be more effective for the Borough or Township police departments to investigate minor calls before summoning the Fire Department.

"Or is it better to make an effort to assume that we're going to do a good job in responding to 100 percent of the fire alarms?" Mr. Goldfarb said, adding that he preferred a scenario where police were sent to investigate the automatic fire alarms first, and then dispatch the fire department.

Chief McAvenia that while that type of protocol was possible, there are cases where the trained fire fighters would be better suited to investigate alarms, even if they seemed insignificant.

Lt. Truestar Urian responded to Mr. Goldfarb's suggestion saying that the role of the Fire Department differed from that of the Police Department, recounting a call to the Borough's western section that had, at first, seemed minor, but turned out be a life-threatening smoke event for the elderly resident inside the home.

Mark Freda, a former member of Borough Council and a volunteer fire fighter, argued for the creation of an ordinance that would impose punitive measures over repeated false alarms. The Township is currently considering such an ordinance.

Chief McAvenia asked the governing bodies to consider establishing a pay-per-call fee of approximately $5.

For now, the governing bodies agreed to revisit the 20-year-old Fire Department Master Plan.

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