One of West Windsor’s most dedicated public servants has retired. Jim Yates, director for the town’s Fire and Emergency Services Division, spent his last day on the job yesterday after 35 years of service to the town.
Yates’ illustrious career in fire service started back in 1970 when he was in his mid-teens.
He had always been fascinated with fire engines and could be seen hanging around with firefighters, watching the trucks and cleaning up at the Lawrence Road Fire Company in Lawrence Township, where he was born and raised.
He joined the local fire company as a volunteer at age 16 where he was trained and observed the occupation up close until he was of legal age to participate at 18, per the Department of Labor standards.
It was more than just the fire trucks and workers – Yates had a desire to serve. Growing up as the oldest child in his family, he and his siblings were always involved with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, helping the community.
Yates was a boy scout until he was 18 at which point he had been learning his craft in fire service for about two years.
“Communities have to have volunteers,” Yates said. “Communities cannot afford to have full career fire departments like they would in a big city. They rely on the volunteers to serve the community, but they have to keep them safe as well.”
At this time, Yates began to learn what he wanted out of his career. He realized he had an interest in fire safety and prevention and didn’t see himself working in a big city environment like Trenton.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s, the majority of firefighter work was volunteer based, he explained. To be paid as a firefighter they had to find their niche.
Starting his first career job at 19 at Mercer County Airport, now Trenton-Mercer Airport, Yates learned the ins and outs of airport security and was given the space to figure out his passion by his chief at the time.
“He really allowed younger guys that had interest to find their space,” he said. “And I got interested in fire safety at the airport and started learning about all the things that go with airport fire safety.”
He moved onto the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst in the early ’70s and held the volunteer position of assistant chief at Lawrence Road Fire Company around the same time. He also held positions as a firefighter and fire inspector in Lawrence and then a fire marshal in Mercerville in following years.
“So these paths, the career path and the volunteer path, are different paths but they kind of weave in and out with each other for most of us who are volunteers and career firefighters,” Yates said.
In 1978 he graduated with an associate’s degree in fire science from Mercer County Community College at age 24 and went on to instruct at MCCC in the same program from 1980 to about 2018.
“Education is so important,” Yates said. “There are much more opportunities now for the young firefighters to get educated to get advanced education than there were back when I did it.”
Even though Yates has been a resident of Falls Township, Pennsylvania, for a number of years, his life has been focused around the towns he volunteered in.
“I always say that I sleep in Pennsylvania, but I live in Lawrence,” he said.
It was in 1985 when he applied for his position in West Windsor and was brought on to help the town meet regulations as part of the new state fire code being implemented.
Not sure what to expect from a town that he remembered as only farms and unclaimed space, Yates was surprised to find that since he last saw West Windsor it had sustained significant development between the 100 series of buildings in Carnegie Center and several housing developments.
He accomplished what he was hired to do relatively quickly because of the small size of the town and amount of businesses that had to be managed.
“I told them at the time, the business community, that we’re all new at this,” he said. “This is new for you, it’s new for me, so we’re all going to learn together…We’re all going to be business friendly in the enforcement of the code and try to build relationships, which we have.”
Since joining the town, Yates has seen immense growth over the past 35 years. Some of the long-standing businesses like the Carnegie Center complex and Sarnoff Corporation have been staples in the town. But changes like the closing of American Cyanamid have always defined Yates’ role within the town in terms of fire safety practices.
“I think he’s made a huge impact,” said Yates’ daughter, Jamie Sierzputowska, who worked for West Windsor as the public health nurse in 2015 and 2016. “He basically built his entire department from himself and West Windsor, when he started, was such a small town in terms of development. There was not nearly what it is now. So when he started, he really built up in anticipation of what they needed and what they were going to need in the future so that they were able to be successful.”
Using his experience with West Windsor, Yates created an assignment for his MCCC courses in which his students were tasked with assessing the growth of a community and planning for it as a fire service professional. He used the growth of West Windsor as a project and planning tool.
As the town evolved and grew in different directions, so did its safety services.
In 1989, the township administrator gave more purchasing responsibilities to Yates, where he would compute the needs of the fire companies and the town’s allocated funds.
That same year the town created the Office of Emergency Services, which grouped the fire companies, volunteer first aid squad, fire code inspectors and emergency management under one umbrella.
They functioned this way until 1993 when the town’s form of government changed and the office became the Division of Emergency Services, where Yates’ role was more defined.
“It called out my duties as the manager of fire emergency services but it was all in support of the volunteer organizations,” he said. “The only difference was it said in the ordinance that any career firefighters that the township hired would report to me.”
This move supported a clear vertical authority for public employees.
As the township has grown, so has the size of the department. “The number of career firefighters have gone up, but primarily because we’ve taken on more responsibilities,” Yates said.
Whether to staff a fire truck or ambulance, or run fire inspections, the town’s Fire and Emergency Services Division has always responded to the commercial growth in the community. Mainly mission-driven hires have grown the division incrementally.
The Division of Fire and Emergency Services’ responsibilities include responding to fires, taking part in fire fighting efforts and supporting the Princeton Junction and West Windsor volunteer fire companies.
Throughout his tenure in West Windsor, Yates has seen and worked with 12 mayors and eight business administrators.
Deciding to retire was a joint decision between Yates and his wife, Ann. He has his health and realized that it was the perfect time to step away from his role. In July of 2019, Yates made the official decision and put in his letter of resignation.
“He had a lot of great opportunities to use all of the knowledge that he has in the fire service and he made so many really great friends along the way…I think he’s sort of third on the list of people who have been there the longest in the town at this point, which is quite an accomplishment, especially since people these days don’t go anywhere for employment and stay any length of time. Certainly not 35 years,” Ann Yates said.
He purposely planned to retire on his birthday, March 31, to give him ample time to prepare and train his replacement and make for a seamless transition. Yates’ replacement, Tim Lynch has been with the department for 15 years. He comes to the position holding associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, and he is completing a master’s in public administration.
“I think he’s at a place in his life where he feels like he is able to step away and the people that are in place are going to be very successful continuing on what he started,” Sierzputowska said.
Lynch started shadowing Yates in February and has attended, along with three promoted fire captains, Jon Bain, Steve Mitchell and Shannon Pope, the staff and command course through the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute at the University of Maryland.
“Their mission from me, their direction from me, was to become a team,” Yates said.
He told them, “‘You’re all going to be in this staff and command school together. You are the future of this organization.’”
Hanging up his many hats as chief, director, manager and fire marshal, Yates plans to dive into his hobby of woodworking and spending time with his two 17-month-old grandchildren.
“Our family is very proud of him for all of the things that he has accomplished and his dedication to the fire service,” Ann Yates said. “In West Windsor he was available 24/7 his whole career…It was great for him to be a part of such a growing community and he will certainly miss everybody but he is ready to move on to the next part of his life.”