Princeton Fire Department sounds an alarm

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Firefighters William Shields, Anthony Santoro, Sal Baldino, and Mark Freda are looking to expand their ranks with more volunteers and — for the first time — paid professionals.

In many ways, Princeton’s Fire Department is a little known entity. Aside from the huge, gleaming red trucks at the end of the annual Memorial Day Parade (on the Saturday before Memorial Day) or a school visit to a firehouse, most residents, thankfully, have little contact with the department. And yet, every night of every day throughout the year, there are up to four volunteers on duty at the Witherspoon Street Fire House. These men and women ensure that Princeton residents can sleep safely and will be protected within minutes once an alarm goes off. During daylight hours, volunteer pagers are on and programmed to receive emergency calls.

For the past four months another group of volunteer firefighters has also been working behind the scenes, meeting with Marc Dashield, the municipal administrator, and Robert Gregory, director of the Department of Emergency and Safety Services. Their mission: To review the fate of Princeton’s volunteer fire department, a centuries-old institution. Can the men and women donating their time to Princeton still effectively safeguard this community?

After hours of work, discussion, and debate, the group came to believe that these volunteers can still safeguard the town, but only with the support of a cadre of four to six paid professionals. This conclusion is now backed by funding. On April 8 Council approved $800,000 to implement a combination paid/volunteer department.

To many, this represents a seismic shift in the quintessential essence of Princeton; to others, it represents reality.

The reality could be described as alarming. Volunteerism in key public services, especially in Princeton, is not what it used to be. Times change and culture in this community is not static.

Today’s volunteer base for the Fire Department is a far cry from a century ago, when membership in the town’s three fire companies was capped at 50 per company. The full fire department currently has 81 members, of which only 29 are qualified to actually enter a burning building. Of those 29, 10 to 15 are able to respond regularly to calls, and only seven of those live in Princeton — probably more a testament to the lack of affordable housing than to the lack of volunteers’ resolve.

The diminishing number of volunteers has not gone unnoticed by the Fire Department. In 1973 one of the three member companies, Hook and Ladder, accepted its first 18-year-old volunteer and two years later accepted its first woman volunteer. In addition the Fire Department has created an associate program in collaboration with Princeton University, instituted duty shifts so that volunteers can plan their schedules to increase their response rate, and raised funds for summer time “per-diems,” as the department refers to small honoraria to say thank you to volunteers not only donate their time but also their cars to respond to calls.

One of the 18-year-olds who joined Hook and Ladder soon after the age requirement was lowered is Mark Freda, who has witnessed Princeton morphing into an expensive community with a striking change in demographics. In 2016, according to Data USA, Princeton’s median age was 32.8 years; median income was $118,467; and median property value was $811,700. Young men and women who live and work in Princeton would form the ideal pool for recruiting fire department volunteers, but they can no longer afford to live in town.

Freda, a lifelong Princeton resident whose day job is as president of the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad and who is now president of Hook and Ladder, reports that the introduction of smoke detectors, the installation of sprinklers, and new fire codes have resulted in a marked reduction in fires since he joined in 1974. On the other hand, the construction materials in new buildings are more toxic and dangerous. Buildings, due to lighter materials, are now more prone to collapse during fires. The National Fire Protection Association reports that, with the use of petroleum-based products and finishes in today’s homes, fires grow extremely rapidly without application of aggressive fire suppression measures. Firefighters today wear air packs and masks to protect themselves from the toxic chemicals and other byproducts polluting the smoke.

Fire fighting is not a casual, leisure time activity. Thanks to state and federal laws, firefighters now have to go through rigorous training. The 200 hours of training is held at the Mercer County Fire Academy, associated with Mercer County Community College. Princeton pays for this education. Upon completion of this training, a volunteer moves from probationer to fire fighter.

The dwindling number of volunteers means the department does not always satisfy criteria set forth by the National Fire Protection Association. Those standards say that 80 percent of calls should be responded to in 10 minutes or less; Princeton responds to 43 percent of calls within that time frame. Remaining calls are either handled by other fire companies from neighboring towns or have a response time longer than 10 minutes.

Statistics show the percentage of short-staffed calls increasing from 8 percent in 2016 to 8.5 percent in 2017 to 15 percent in 2018.

Last fall Princeton Council commissioned the Rodgers Group, public safety consultants based in Island Heights, New Jersey, to assess the department’s volunteer component. The most dramatic recommendation was the hiring of four to six experienced, specially trained staff to drive fire trucks equipped with pumpers or aerial pieces and also consider creating a pool for volunteers to be paid on a per diem basis, which is less expensive than hiring full-time staff because it eliminates the cost of benefits.

The fire department is also stepping up its efforts to recruit new volunteers. In a joint venture with the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, a recruitment mailing will target 15,000 residents between the ages of 25 and 50 who will receive recruitment information via U.S. mail. The expectation is that 2 percent of the group will respond, and that from this pool enough new members will be signed up.

But this is no quick fix to the staffing challenge. Training and certifying a new member can take as long as 12 to 18 months. The recruits have to attend and pass Fire School during their first 18 months in the department, usually requiring two weeknights and a Saturday each week for about three months. Then they are scheduled for four duty shifts — overnight shifts of eight or ten hours in length — per month. Two drills per month are normally scheduled. And the department and individual companies hold monthly meetings.

The history

What makes this a seismic shift to some is the long history of the fire department as an all-volunteer enterprise. You can get a sense of that history by considering the names and titles of six volunteers who participated in the deliberations with the town administrators. It’s not just the appointed chiefs and their deputies. It’s also the presidents of three separate fire companies, distinct operating units that have their own history and organizational characteristics.

The Chambers Street building was the home of Mercer Engine Company 3 until 1992.

The chiefs are chosen for two-year terms by a Chief’s Selection Committee, comprised of past chiefs (one per company, selected by their company), the Director of Emergency Services, and the Town Administrator. This group reviews applications for each position, interviews them, and then decides who will fill each position. The current roster includes Sal Baldino, chief; T.R. Johnson, deputy fire chief; and Devin Davis, assistant fire chief. The three fire companies choose their own presidents by their own rules. Current presidents are Mark Freda, Hook and Ladder; William Shields, Engine Company No. 1; and Anthony Santoro, Mercer Engine Company No. 3.

The three companies in turn select their own presidents according to their own particular rules. Each company operates as its own social group, but they also have joint social activities. A prospective volunteer could seek to join one company in particular. If the volunteer has no preference he or she will be assigned to a company.

Although at one time each of the three companies had its own separate fire house, now Hook and Ladder and Mercer Engine Company No. 3 both operate out of the Witherspoon Street Fire Station. But Engine Company No. 1 has its events at the fire house on Chestnut Street. One unchanging fact is that they are all passionate about the fire department’s contribution to Princeton while remaining wedded to their particular company and its history.

Engine Company No. 1 still holds some of its social events at its building on Chestnut Street, above. But the structure is used now to house fire patrol cars, not fire fighting equipment.

Hook and Ladder is the oldest company, having been formed in 1788. As the town grew enter Princeton Engine Company No. 1 in 1794. Finally, Mercer Engine Company No. 3 made its appearance in 1848. All three were organized as public meetings to discuss how to improve fire protection in the town. The meetings were held in local taverns (note: no records can be found of refreshment sales). These companies were formed at a time when there were few if any commuters and people both lived and worked in Princeton.

A major change occurred with the establishment of Mercer Engine Company No. 3. Up to that time, the fire companies paid for all their equipment. They were truly an all-volunteer effort and were thus free of any civic supervision. At its founding, however, Mercer County Engine Company No. 3 gave Borough Council the right to select firefighting equipment in exchange for funding that equipment.

That was the start of municipal funding for the fire department. While all equipment is now purchased and maintained by the town and the town owns the firehouses, volunteers have continued to staff each fire company. A century or more ago, it was something that citizens naturally did.

The companies not only fought fires but also became de facto social clubs. Through the first half of the 20th century, Princeton newspapers were filled with reports of the fire companies’ annual balls, theatrical presentations, and sponsorships of baseball and other sports leagues. There was an annual outing where each company’s rifle team competed.

Company firehouses were generally located nearest the pool of local volunteers. Thus, Engine Company No. 3 was on the western side of town; some referred to it as the money side. Be that as it may, that firehouse at 16 Chambers Street ultimately proved too small for new trucks purchased in the early 1900s; until last February it was the home of Glenmede Trust — the building is now for sale. Hook and Ladder eventually settled in on Harrison Street and was staffed by the many policemen who lived nearby. The Chestnut Street firehouse, home to Princeton Engine Company No. 1, was located in what was then the town’s Irish neighborhood and residents up and down that street were volunteers.

Though none of the old firehouses still serves in that function today, the volunteer members of each company are not only proud of their separate histories but also maintain their social cohesion and sense of civic duty.

Hook and Ladder. Having been founded a year before the U.S. Constitution came into force, Hook and Ladder has had a long history of independence. It is a source of pride that it was the last company to surrender control to local government. That happened in 1957, when the company moved to North Harrison Street from its firehouse at 16 ½ Witherspoon Street, which it had constructed at a cost of $4,250 in June, 1894.

If you take a close look at the old Army and Navy store on Witherspoon Street near Nassau you can see the outline of that firehouse. It’s hard to envision fire trucks dashing out of such a crowded area of town. Actually, they did scream out for several years even after the North Harrison Street station was built. Eventually all equipment was moved to the new quarters. Army and Navy proprietor Joseph W. Caplan purchased the old building in 1957 for $49,590.

Though Princeton was becoming home to more and more commuters in the years following that move, there were still locally owned stores filling Nassau Street. Owners and employees of these stores filled fire company ranks. The Hulit family — Ralph Sr. and sons John and Ralph Jr. — were all members of Hook and Ladder. At least one of these men could easily leave the old Hulit’s Shoes store on Nassau Street when a fire emergency was called.

Mark Freda took advantage of the lowered age and joined Hook and Ladder as an 18-year-old volunteer in 1974. He felt, as so many do to this day, that it was a good way to give back to the community. Freda has exemplified his commitment to Princeton not only by serving on Borough Council from 1986 to 1999 but also by being a member of Hook and Ladder for 35 years.

Today Hook and Ladder is back on Witherspoon Street but at the new firehouse across from the municipal building. Its former Harrison Street quarters are now used as storage facilities for equipment used by Capital Health’s mobile intensive care unit, a unit always on call.

Engine Company No. 1. In many ways, Engine Company No. 1 burst forth in 1794 from the first fire company, whose original name was Princeton Hook and Ladder and Chemical Engine Company No. 1. Why there was a divorce within six years and the assumption of part of the first company’s name is lost in the musty archives of history. Talk to members of today’s Hook and Ladder, however, and they will emphasize that they are the first despite not having the numeral one in their name.

Though it might be second in creation, Engine Company No. 1 has remained at one location longer than any other company. Indeed, this year marks the 140th year the company can be found on Chestnut Street. Its first firehouse dates back to 1879. Even before the outbreak of World War II, Borough Council was debating its replacement. Finally, in 1949, the current structure was not only built but emphatically defined the neighborhood.

Company President William Shields, for example, spent much of his early years on Chestnut Street and can remember a fire alarm going off in the middle of a 1950s summer night and all the residents dashing out to see what was happening. As a young boy, it was thrilling for him to see the men run out of their homes and jump on to the clanging engine. The civic duty associated with that convinced him to become a volunteer 20 years later. He recalls sprinting from the sidewalk in front of his house onto a fire truck careening down Chestnut and pulling on his fire clothes enroute to the scene.

Fire trucks, of course, no longer dash down Chestnut Street but fire police cars do. These are the vehicles sanctioned to close off traffic when a fire breaks out. They are staffed, according to Robert Gregory, by 15 volunteers “who no longer want to run into burning buildings but still want to serve.”

The fire cops generally meet monthly and when they do try to stay clear of any water dripping from the leak in the roof. Despite talk about demolishing this building and perhaps using the property for affordable housing, the Council has appropriated $80,000 to fix the roof. This appropriation is actually a money saver as it means it will not be necessary to build a new addition to the Witherspoon Fire Station to make room for the vehicles now stored on Chestnut Street.

Should you happen to walk down Chestnut Street on a warm evening, as my husband and I did last year, you may see people sitting outside and lights inside. Those sitting there — often William Shields — will be happy to talk about the company and to show the steel beam inside, draped in an American flag, that came from one of the buildings destroyed in the 9/11 attack and which is now a memorial to the firefighters killed in that attack.

Mercer Engine Company No. 3. The newest company on the block, Mercer Engine Company No. 3 boasts a record that probably no other company holds: a future U.S. President is on its list of past volunteer members. Woodrow Wilson had joined the company when it was located on Chambers Street and he was a member of Princeton’s faculty.

Though the company has been based in the Witherspoon Fire Station since 1992, it remains known for its deep family ties as generations appear on its historical roster. The Kopp family is among these. That name is familiar to many as it appears on the bicycle shop on Spring Street. Though the family had sold the store in 1940, it retained its Princeton roots and its name is prominent among volunteer fire fighters.

This community service was so ingrained that when Anthony Santoro married a Kopp, his wife made sure he continued the tradition established by her father and grandfather. The Kopp family all belonged to Mercer Engine Company No. 3 so that, of course, is the company that Santoro joined.

Given his wife’s family history, there was no grief over his having extensive training on weekends or being called out in the middle of the night. Such interruptions to family life, however, were not appealing to future recruits. “It was time,” Santoro says, “to get families involved.” For almost two centuries, many fire company outings were limited to fire fighters. Now wives, husbands, siblings, children are all invited to social events.

“Today,” Santoro says, “the bond between fire fighters — always present throughout our history here in Princeton — now encompasses families as well. It’s quite special.”

For a copy of the plan presented at the April 8 Council meeting, go to princetonnj.gov. There, click on Meetings and Agendas; Past Meetings; Council — April 8; and, finally, Packets.