By John Burton
RED BANK – In the closing days of 2016 the borough’s volunteer fire department under went its largest reorganization in the department’s more than 140-year history.
Christopher Soden, who has been with the department since 1998 with the Union Hose company and comes from four generations of members, served as the department’s 2016 chief. For much of the last year he worked on the reorganization of the department. His plan was for consolidating some of the companies and members, along with redistributing fire trucks to the different locations.
“We’re trying to get everyone to work together and be a stronger unit,” Soden said.
Borough Councilman Michael Whelan, who serves as the council’s fire and police commissioner, and Soden acknowledged that active and overall membership in the department is down. This is a situation not unique to Red Bank, as communities everywhere confront ways to address membership shortfalls, as older members die or move away and younger generations simply don’t have the time or interest to dedicate to training and participation.
In the last couple of years, borough officials sold the two firehouses the municipality owned, first the Liberty Hose Fire Company’s house on White Street in 2014, and then last year the Independent Fire Company on Mechanic Street. The locations were sold in a bidding process to private developers, which means, Whelan noted, the properties are now subject to property taxes, having been exempt as government property.
A third firehouse, Relief Engine Company, is owned by Red Bank Catholic High School. The school acquired the attached structure, former police headquarters on Monmouth Street. The borough continues to use the house for $1 a year for a 99-year lease from the school, as well as gets to keep its veterans’ memorial on the building’s grounds.
The remaining fire companies, which are independently incorporated, own their houses. But with the loss of a couple of homes for companies, Soden began under taking restructuring and consolidating the department, which has long been discussed but never acted upon.
The restructuring involves in part relocating three fire companies, with Relief Engine, Independent Engine and Liberty Hose now based in Relief’s firehouse on Drummond Place. In addition, MONOC emergency and ambulance services will operate out of that location. The borough had contracted to use MONOC for emergency services as the borough’s First Aid squad was also having difficulty recruiting new members. MONOC had been functioning out of the First Aid facility, Spring Street; Liberty Hose had been moved to the First Aid building following Super Storm Sandy in 2012, when the storm had impacted the already deteriorating White Street firehouse.
Consolidating the emergency services and fire companies “into the center of things,” in the downtown area makes perfect sense, Whelan said.
One of the firetrucks that had been housed at the Relief company has been moved to West Side Hose company on Leighton Avenue, providing additional resources for the company west of the train crossing, and will delay the purchase of a new truck for a year or more, according to Soden.
A more than 25-year-old firetruck will be sold instead of replacing it. Trucks are generally replaced after that amount of time, with a new truck costing upward of $600,000, Whelan and Soden said.
“So, that’s a win, big time,” Whelan said.
Bringing together men and equipment means a more unified and efficient operation that will build on department camaraderie and morale, given the obstacles in recruitment, Soden stressed.
“It makes it the Red Bank Department,” as opposed to various companies, Whelan added.
The plan was approved twice by the department’s Ex-Chiefs Advisory Committee, a group that offers support to the current chief, Soden said.
But it hasn’t been all smooth going, he said. Initially, “It was like beating my freaking head on the wall,” he said. Members of individual companies remain fiercely loyal to their companies and many objected to consolidation in the beginning but most have come to accept it as necessary, Soden added.
Red Bank has six fire companies, with the oldest, Navesink Hook and Ladder, 7-9 Mechanic St., first established in 1872. The late 19th and early 20th century was a time of horse-drawn fire wagons, with hand water pumps for the hoses. The number of companies was needed back then to access different parts of the community should a fire break out; and given the town has long been divided by train tracks, fire companies were needed on both sides of town, Soden pointed out.
Now, though, Whelan said these consolidation steps were necessary for the department’s survival. The alternative might have been going to a paid department, like Long Branch. But that would have been very onerous given the costs attached. “I can tell you right now we don’t have that kind of money,” to support a paid service, he said. Whelan said Long Branch’s paid department costs about $6 million a year to operate.
Hopefully, sometime in the future, Whelan said he would like to see it further consolidated to two larger locations – one on the East Side and one the West Side – where both could house the larger aerial trucks and the other engines providing the needed coverage for both sides of town.
The department overall answers roughly 40 calls a month, Soden said, upward of approximately 500 a year.
The Red Bank department operates a fire police company, fire cadet program, scuba rescue team and a ladies’ auxiliary unit.
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