Burning Questions

PERTH AMBOY — Months before a fire wiped out five Cortlandt Street houses, Councilman Fernando Gonzalez said there should be separate lines for fire suppression systems but no action was taken to address the situation.

Now officials are offering conflicting stories about the fire and how cuts made by the administration of Mayor Wilda Diaz could have impacted efforts to battle the blaze that left more than 50 people homeless.

Fire Chief David Volk told residents some of the hydrants in the Cortlandt Street area had either low pressure or no water because they share main lines.

“Hydrants in a certain radius are on the same grid,” said Volk, in a story published in the Amboy Guardian. “If one hydrant on the grid needs extra water it will pull excess water from another hydrant.”

The same article had Gregory C. Fehrenbach asserting that there were no reports stating any problems with fire hydrants.

Fehrenbach is a $200,000 a year independent contractor who has served as the city business administrator for Perth Amboy since Diaz took over on July 1, 2008, although his status in that capacity only became official on September 16, 2010.

Originally hired as an interim administrator, and at one point sharing the job with two other high paid officials, Fehrenbach has essentially run the city for Diaz, controlling all of the city’s operations and policies, commanding all department directors and exercising discretion over the operating budget and all labor contract negotiations.

Although he does not even live in Perth Amboy, Diaz has designated Fehrenbach as “acting mayor” while she was away and she has refused to terminate his residency waiver.

At a March council meeting, where Gonzalez said the city’s sewer system is over 100 years old and also in need of repairs, the councilman also said Perth Amboy would need to be replace water system pumps and flow meters before a disruption occurs in the 95 miles of water mainlines.

In addition to Fehrenbach’s denials about water pressure problems that hampered firefighters, some residents say the fire raised questions about whether the Diaz administration has done an adequate job of code enforcement and if the Mayor’s decision to eliminate municipal ambulance squad was a bad choice.

They say housing inspections might have prevented the five-alarm fire, which broke out around 4 a.m. on Sunday, June 3. An electrical short was identified as the cause of the blaze that incinerated four century-old wooden frame houses as the inferno rapidly spread before the collapse of several buildings.

Three injury victims were treated in the burn unit of St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston. When she disbanded the city’s ambulance crew in 2009 as a cost-reduction effort Mayor Wilda Diaz said, “Perth Amboy will save money through this transfer of services but services will not be impacted.”

About 75 firefighters from 11 units who were required to bring the fire under control. People left homeless were assisted by the Red Cross.


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