Officials in Princeton are planning to convert the fire department from an all-volunteer group to a combination force made up of volunteers and full-time, paid firefighters over the next year.
“It’s amazing we still have a volunteer fire department,’ Princeton Business Administrator Marc Dashield said at the Princeton Council “retreat” that was held Jan. 5 in a conference room at the Princeton Public Library.
“We’ve looked at the fire department’s ability to respond in timely manner,” Dashield said. “They are just not making it.”
Dashield said the change will cost the municipality $800,000 a year or more.
“It is a major issue. We have done everything we could to maintain the volunteer force,” he said. “At this point the community has changed enough that a volunteer force is not viable at this point.”
Princeton has an all-volunteer firefighter force since 1788. In recent years, many volunteers have moved out of town and now live in neighboring communities as the cost of living in Princeton has gone up. The three Princeton fire companies — Princeton Hook & Ladder Company, Mercer Engine Co. No. 3, and Engine Co. No. 1, consolidated and are at one location now, on Witherspoon Street across from town hall. Since 2009, a group of about 30 Princeton University staff members has supplemented the fire department, volunteering to respond to emergencies. But the university volunteers only respond during business hours.
More than 27,000 fire departments are listed with the National Fire Department Registry. About 71 percent are volunteer organizations, and another 16 percent are “mostly volunteer,” according to figures from the U.S. Fire Administration, a part of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management.
In New Jersey there are 694 local fire departments or companies. Sixty-eight of those companies are career or mostly career firefighters. The rest are volunteer or mostly volunteer companies, according to the National Fire Registry data.
As recruiting volunteers has become more difficult across the country, many fire departments have become more creative when it comes to recruitment. In addition to hosting open houses and ride-alongs, some departments place ads in newspapers and on websites, and show recruitment videos on local television stations and in movie theaters. Others target parents at school and sporting events, and firefighters in some communities go door to door offering free fire alarm inspections.
Many municipalities now offer incentives for volunteers to join fire companies. Some towns offer tuition reimbursement, while others offer stipends to volunteers who staff night shifts at firehouses. Avalon, New Jersey pays volunteers a stipend of $400 a month to spent four nights a month at the firehouse, while Secaucus pays its volunteers a $500 stipend per month.
Bob Gregory, the director of emergency services for Princeton, said the administration, the three Princeton fire company presidents, and the fire chief have been meeting to discuss the use of paid firefighters to supplement the volunteer force and fill in the gaps, as well as ways to recruit more volunteers.
“It’s a cooperative effort,” Gregory said. “We want the process to be seamless for all parties involved, and we want it to be transparent so everyone knows what is going on.”
Gregory said Princeton offers a VIP program for members who respond to a certain percentage of fire calls. The members get paid between $5 and $10 per call depending on the level of experience. A call can be responding to an alarm or a car accident. The fire department also has a gym members can use, and has added some new equipment.
Officials have met with a recruiting company to develop a marketing and recruiting efforts that target Princeton residents, Gregory said.
“We have a great core group of men and women volunteers of all ages. The university program is going strong and has been a successful program, and tremendous help,” Gregory said. “The issue, like in the rest of the country, is that the volunteer pool is shrinking and we still have to provide service to the town.”
The website for the Princeton Fire Department is not functioning and is currently being redesigned. If you would like information about becoming a volunteer firefighter in Princeton, email Chief Sal Baldino at firstname.lastname@example.org.