N.J. fire department may shut down over contract dispute, fight over cameras in trucks

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A volunteer fire department that serves about 30,000 residents in Somerset County says it may have to halt operations due to an ongoing contract dispute.

Volunteers at the East Franklin Fire Department in Franklin Township said they refused to sign an annual contract proposed by their fire district’s board of commissioners because of a disagreement over the terms. The fight includes a face-off over placing cameras in fire trucks and a proposal to remove the fire company’s power to veto new policies, the fire commissioners said.

If the fire company doesn’t sign the contract by June 30, it will have to turn over all its gear and trucks and cease operations, according to the Board of Commissioners of Franklin Township Fire District No. 3, which oversees the department.

The fire district might replace the lost volunteers with paid, part-time firefighters if an agreement is not reached, the commissioners said.

“The Board hopes that the company will sign the contract which will allow them to continue to provide fire and rescue services, but if it does not, the District must work to ensure that such services remain available through other means,” Sherrod Middleton, the chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Franklin Township Fire District, said in a statement.

The two sides disagree over a plan to install cameras and audio recording devices in fire trucks, similar to those in police cars.
East Franklin firefighters are worried about their privacy if the trucks include recording devices that could be used to listen in on private conversations, said Daniel Krushinski, who has been the chief of East Franklin Fire Department for over 24 years.
The fire commissioners say the new cameras are necessary.
“The camera system, which replaces a prior camera system, would help guarantee that when the District has allowed someone to drive a million dollar fire truck, that the person is doing it properly,” said Middleton, the chairman of the board of commissioners.
The dispute in Franklin Township comes amid a nationwide shortage of volunteer firefighters that has led to some departments closing in New Jersey.
East Franklin Fire Department is one of two fire departments in District 3 in Franklin Township. The township has a total of 10 fire service units.
Since last year’s contract expired in March, East Franklin has been negotiating with the board over the new contract terms. The firefighters claim the new contract terms include changes that “dictate and micromanage” their department’s operations.
Fire company officials said there have been attempts to resolve the disagreement, but the board has been unwilling to negotiate. Firefighters said they plan to attend the board’s public meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Fire District 3 office.
“We are willing to continue negotiations and come to an agreement that continues to provide safety and stability in how we respond to emergency incidents,” East Franklin Fire Department officials said in a statement.
“Under no circumstances should fire protection to the people we serve be compromised by removing the fire vehicles, equipment, and gear,” the department said.
The contract dispute began when the board proposed stripping the fire chief of the ability to provide input and veto new policies before they take effect, according to a statement from the commissioners.
The veto power made it challenging for the commissioners to add to or amend policies, the board said.
The board also said it will no longer cover damages to a firefighter’s personal property that occur while they are on duty.
According to Krushinski, firefighters use their personal cell phones at fire scenes because the district funds an app that supports their fire response and service efforts. So, any potential damage to the devices should be covered, the fire chief said.

“If my phone is with me at the fire scene, and it breaks, why shouldn’t they pay for it?” Krushinski said. “They paid for about four phones in the last five, six years.”

Krushinski also alleged the contract dispute is partly due to Middleton’s personal grievances against him and his intention to replace him as chief.
Middleton did not immediately respond to a request to comment.
The East Franklin Fire Department serves a nearly five-mile radius in the township, has 55 volunteers and has responded to over 300 calls this year. The other fire company in District 3, which already signed a new contract, sometimes lacks the manpower to respond to calls, Krushinski said.
“We have 66 sets of turnout gear and they’re gonna shut us down?” Krushinski said. “We have tried on more than one occasion to negotiate with the commissioners and were turned down.”

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