Elizabeth May Lose 40% of Firefighters

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TRENTON – State officials are putting public safety increasingly at risk with unwise budget cuts and pension alterations, according to Elizabeth Deputy Fire Chief Lathey Wirkus, who is also the county’s mutual aid coordinator.

You can hear Elizabeth Deputy Fire Chief Lathey Wirkus discuss the growing threat to public safety caused by restrictions on municipal spending and budget cuts approved by Gov. Chris Christie and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan by clinking on this link. (Wirkus’ testimony begins near the 20 minute mark.)

Wirkus told Senate Law and Public Safety committee members that mutual-aid agreements are forcing paid firefighters into a primary firefighting role in neighboring towns where they should be providing back-up service because the numbers of volunteers are down.

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A spike in New Jersey’s homicide rate, a report that gang activity is on the rise, and police layoffs at several large cities prompted the hearing to evaluate the impact budget cuts are having on public safety.

Wirkus said that the threat of changes in the public pension system is driving senior firefighters to retire in large numbers and that the Elizabeth Fire Department is short about 25 members through attrition.

Wirkus said Mayor J. Christian Bollwage predicted that with a two percent cap on budget increases, Elizabeth manpower could drop from 267 personnel to 160.

“There has been a dramatic decrease in volunteerism,” Wirkus said. “We have had a crisis of manpower, boots-on-the-ground, for some time.”

“We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Wirkus. “Eventually we are not going to have enough fire apparatus, or firefighters on that apparatus, to do much good of anything.”

Gov. Chris Christie, who aimed his most scathing criticism at teachers, has also called on police and firefighter unions to give concessions when negotiating with cities.

“When you look at some of the specifics of the union contracts that exist in these cities, you can tell why they’re being suffocated by the cost of these things,” Christie said. “The unions need to get realistic about giving concessions in order to save jobs and protect the public safety.”

“Without proper manning you can’t stop these fires,” Wirkus said. “When the governor says that everything is fine, I’m telling you it is not fine.”

The committee heard from several guests concerning the increase in violent crime around the state and the impact of the fiscal crisis on maintaining public safety.

Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, the only Union County Democrat who voted for Christie’s draconian budget cuts, did not attend the hearing.


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