Firefighters call layoffs suspicious
Published in the Asbury Park Press 12/08/04
HOWELL -- A fire district has disbanded its paid firefighters unit by laying off all five firefighters, including two who were suspended in October after they had complained about workplace safety.
Fire district officials said the unit was primarily used for EMT response, and that the unit's work was duplicated by a Police Department EMT unit that was created this year.
But some of the fired workers said the disbanding was a result of the friction that had existed since the workers complained to state agencies about safety issues.
"This is direct retaliation to complaints," said Lt. Kevin Franz, a Fairfield (Essex County) resident who was fired along with Peter Sykes, Howell; Scott Alvarez, Toms River; Steven Spera, Wall; and Robert Underhill Jr., Wall.
"We had been threatened with our jobs and our pensions anytime we've asked about safety issues, pensions or anything job-related," Franz said.
William Donahue, the Freewood Acres district commissioner and a supervising administrator of the paid firefighters,& Fire Chief, & is a Union IAFF Firefighter could not be reached for comment.
Sykes and Alvarez were suspended for several days in October by fire district officials.
Thomas Canzanella, head of the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey, said the two firefighters had complained that the work uniforms issued by the fire district were not compliant with state safety and health directives.
Other workplace complaints that were made to the state Department of Labor and other agencies are still being reviewed, Canzanella said.
Sykes and Alvarez were reinstated by the township Board of Fire Commissioners at an October meeting that was attended by 50 uniformed firefighters from throughout the state.
The Freewood Acres firehouse is on Route 9 near West Fifth Street.
Lane Biviano, attorney for the fire district, said the unit's disbanding will save the fire district roughly $400,000 annually in wages and equipment.
Howell is among several local municipalities that augment their volunteer forces with a handful of paid firefighters. The township's Southard Fire Company on Route 9 began employing paid firefighters in 1989, and Freewood Acres added that component in May 2003.
The five Freewood Acres paid firefighters worked 7 a.m.-to-5 p.m. shifts, Mondays through Fridays, with each member having one day off during that span.
Sykes, 27, said he was paid $29,500 and was due to receive a raise to $31,500 next month.
"I bought a house in Howell to be closer to work and be part of the community," Sykes said. "I wanted to be a career firefighter, and I finally got the privilege to be one. Personally I think this is all due to retaliation."
Township Manager Bruce Davis said the fire districts are separate from the municipal government and have their own administration and budgets.
In June, the township Police Department launched its EMS Unit, which department officials said was designed to help volunteer first-aid squads cover weekday emergency calls.
The unit is staffed by about a dozen part-time special police officers cross-trained in first aid and law enforcement, Police Capt. Robert Scott said.
Scott said it was not expected that paid firefighters would be laid off because of the extra EMT coverage.
"Our unit can handle extra calls," Scott said, "but they better not come in all at the same time."
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12-11-2004, 06:23 PM #1
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Firefighters call layoffs suspicious !!
12-13-2004, 09:47 PM #2
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- Dec 2004
- South Central NJ
Conflict Flares over Fire Jobs
Conflict flares over fire jobs
Published in the Asbury Park Press
HOWELL -- The labor union for five paid township firefighters had complained to a state agency about alleged dual officeholding by superiors. Seven weeks later, the firefighters were dismissed from their jobs.
The firefighters said their dismissals this week were in retaliation for workplace safety complaints and a complaint to the state Department of Community Affairs about two Freewood Acre Fire Co. members serving in positions for both the volunteer company and the fire district.
A longtime member of a state firefighting regulatory group contacted by the Asbury Park Press said the Freewood Acres superiors serving the multiple roles have conflicts.
"They should eliminate the conflicts," said Roger S. Potts, who in September stepped down after 10 years as president of the New Jersey Association of Fire Districts. Potts remains an association trustee.
The letter to the DCA on Oct. 12 by Thomas Canzanella, president of the state Professional Firefighters Association, stated that William Donahue is the volunteer company's chief, the administrator of the Career Firefighter Program and treasurer of the publicly elected Board of Fire Commissioners & Union IAFF with the Fort Monmouth FD. His father, Donald Donahue, is the volunteer company's president and clerk of the Board of Fire Commissioners.
The Local Ethics Board several years ago issued a blanket opinion that presidents, chiefs and other upper officials of a fire company cannot also serve as a fire commissioner in the same district, Potts said.
"If one is a chief and one is a president of the fire company, they have a conflict if they're on the commissioner board," Potts said. "It's a built-in conflict. As a member of the company, you could come before the Board of Fire Commissioners and ask to buy a new firetruck, then you could walk around the table and vote or influence it as a commissioner."
Potts, a South Brunswick resident, said he was unaware of the particulars of the Howell situation. But he said he believes in the case described to him, the DCA is likely to "tell that person to remove the conflict if someone files a complaint."
Canzanella filed the complaint a week after two of the paid firefighters were suspended and then reinstated three days later. Canzanella said the suspensions were retaliatory because the firefighters had raised issues about workplace safety.
Susan Jacobucci, chairwoman of the DCA's Local Finance Board, responded in a letter to the union about the complaint about dual roles, saying the matter is being considered for "any necessary formal investigation."
Attorneys for Fire District No. 5, which is the Freewood Acres district, said a conflict is not established by officials serving in dual roles, and the firefighters' dismissals are unrelated to the union's complaint.
One of the Fire District No. 5 attorneys, Richard Braslow, also represents the association of which Potts is a member. Braslow said the Local Finance Board's opinion that an executive fire company official can't also serve as a fire commissioner "is not meant to be a treatise," and an association handbook that cites the opinion does so "with the purpose of making you aware there's issues that you should consider."
Braslow said the opinion on fire company and district dual officeholding has never been tested in courts in the state. He said some towns would be unable to fill all fire company and district positions if the opinion was legislated and enforced.
Lane Biviano, the fire district's labor attorney, said complaints about the roles of the Donahues were not an issue in the dismissal of the firefighters. Requests to William Donahue for comment were referred to the attorneys.
"The unit was disbanded because it was primarily an EMT unit, and its work was being duplicated by a new Police Deparment EMT unit," Biviano said. "An October letter to a state agency by the head of the union has nothing to do with a well thought-out and discussed decision to disband something that was no longer needed."
Two of the firefighters who lost their jobs -- township resident Peter Sykes and Scott Alvarez of Toms River -- had been suspended in October after they had complained about work-place safety.
The others who were dismissed were Wall residents Steven Spera and Robert Underhill Jr. and Kevin Franz of Fairfield in Essex County.
Biviano said the unit's disbanding will save the fire district roughly $300,000 annually in wages and equipment.
Howell is among several local municipalities that augment their volunteer forces with a handful of paid firefighters. The township's Southard Fire Company on Route 9 began em-ploying paid firefighters in 1989. Freewood Acres added that component in May 2003.
The five Freewood Acres paid firefighters worked 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, with each member having one day off during that span. Each received a salary of about $30,000.
In June, the township Police Department launched its EMS Unit, which department officials said was designed to help volunteer first aid squads cover weekday emergency calls.
The unit is staffed by about a dozen part-time special police officers cross-trained in first aid and law enforcement, Police Capt. Robert Scott said. Scott said it was not expected that paid firefighters would be laid off because of the extra EMT coverage.
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