In Wake of Barchester Way House Fire, Firefighters Express Deep Concern
Wednesday, May 23, 2012 • 12:27pm
WESTFIELD, NJ - As the Westfield town council considers firefighters' salaries and in the wake of a fire that destroyed the Barchester Way home of Marjorie Leffler and her two young sons on Saturday, May 19, several firefighters and residents came to the May 22 town council meeting to express their concern regarding the shrinking size of Westfield’s fire department in recent years.
“I’m here to underscore the need for manpower,” said Bill Lavin, president of the New Jersey State Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association. He spoke of how, initially, only three firefighters from Westfield were able to arrive on the scene of Saturday’s fire—six were on duty, and three were responding to a call for mutual aid from Springfield. (At Springfield’s fire department, he said, “There are more toilets on the facility than there are firefighters on duty.”)
Because only three men arrived at the Barchester Way home, they were forced to call for mutual aid themselves and wait for additional men to arrive before they could enter the home and extinguish the blaze.
Lavin pleaded with the council to increase the number of firefighters it hires to meet the minimum that he believes is required to keep the town safe, adding “I know that taxes are an issue.”
“I grow increasingly concerned that with this type of manpower on a regular basis that tragedy is inevitability,” said Lavin, who said that the decrease in manpower at fire departments across the state results in a “domino effect.”
Resident Ellen DiIorio then spoke to the council, sharing her own story of how her home burned down in September of 2011. When Westfield firefighters arrived at her house with too few men to enter and save them, “My husband and I were rescued in the middle of the night by neighbors,” she said, who pulled them to safety through their bedroom window.
“We lost our home, we lost our pets—our dog, our cat, our two birds,” said DiIorio, her voice breaking with emotion. “If we had had children across the hall or an elderly parent who was bedridden, we would not have been able to rescue them.”
“My heart breaks. I feel terrible,” responded Councilwoman Jo Ann Neylan, who chairs the Public Safety, Traffic and Parking Committee.
“We’re doing the best job we can,” she said. “If we could afford more firemen then we would.”
Westfield firefighter Lt. Tim Brennen also expressed his extreme concern, telling the council that decisions to reduce manpower has had a “disastrous effect” on the department’s ability to fight fires.
The department once prided itself on its ability to show up quickly, go into a building and contain a fire to one room, he told them. “We are still fast and effective, but not fully capable,” said Brennen. “Since the cuts we have had multiple homes and businesses lost.”
Brennen resides with his family in Westfield. “I no longer feel safe,” he shared.
When asked by Mayor Andy Skibitsky, Brennen said that he could not speak for the union but that he himself would be willing to make some sacrifices “to a point” in order to make it possible for the town to hire more firefighters.