Letter to the Community Regarding: Consolidated Fire Department

South Orange and Maplewood Neighbors,

On Friday, April 12, a flyer, paid for by “SO Forward,” was mailed to many in our community making false and misleading claims about fire safety services impacting our residents as well as Maplewood.

Shortly after becoming Village President, and with the support of the Board of Trustees, I began working with Maplewood to discuss opportunities for our two towns to collaborate. One of the greatest opportunities for us was looking for efficiencies within our respective fire departments. With unanimous support of both governing bodies, we jointly issued an RFP to analyze the feasibility of consolidation, merger or sharing our fire protection services. The final Fire Department report, issued in October 2017, found robust evidence that increased efficiency, better service, and cost savings were possible through a consolidation of the two separate fire departments into a single entity.

“Our findings are clear – the communities of Maplewood and South Orange would be better served by combining their fire departments into a single entity.” (p.7)

“Fire services are increasingly regulated, and administrative requirements are considerable. Achieving compliance in a small organization is very challenging. Economies in sharing resources and administration will save money and improve the quality of service to both communities.” (p. 7)

This issue was analyzed from the following objectives within the study:

  1. Improved effectiveness/response time
  2. Increased efficiency
  3. Improved productivity
  4. Improved customer service
  5. Enhanced or expanded services
  6. Cost savings
  7. Improved allocation and utilization of resources, including manpower, facilities, and equipment.
  8. Cost avoidance(s)
  9. Coordination and improved efficiencies in mutual aid
  10. Standardization of services and programs
  11. Improved and more effective training
  12. Opportunities to improve ISO rating(s)
  13. Additional funding sources, including future state and federal grant funding

Shortly after, we entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Division of Local Government Services as authorized by both town’s governing bodies to provide “technical assistance with respect to creating and executing a plan to combine fire departments”.

The following provides clarity, point by point, of the alarming claims made by “SO Forward”:

Claim: If Sheena Collum’s disastrous public safety plan passes, say goodbye to the South Orange Fire Department.

  • Response: As a consolidated department between Maplewood and South Orange, the Fire Department would be reconstituted and referred to as the “Maplewood-South Orange Fire Department” or the “South Orange-Maplewood Fire Department”. The naming convention chosen is completely irrelevant – just as our shared school district is known as the South Orange and Maplewood School District (SOMSD) – both communities are still represented.

Claim: She would give up our fire department to Maplewood.

  • Response: With all municipal collaborations, a “lead agency” must always be identified, such as with our shared municipal court. Having one town lead does not mean the other town abdicates, especially given the reports last month to each governing body in identifying a Joint Meeting as a potential structure with assistance from the state.

Claim: There will be less firefighters protecting us – and unions jobs will be lost.

  • Response: More than incorrect, what will transpire is the complete opposite. Jobs will not be lost and titles and seniority will not change. The consolidation means a new and much larger department scheduled to ensure more firefighters respond to fires than current response levels.

Claim: Shifts will reduce from 8 firefighters to 3 firefighters.

  • Response: This is an incorrect misdirection of facts. Each tour of duty in both South Orange and Maplewood have what is frequently referred to as “minimum staffing requirements” and that will not change. The Maplewood FD utilizes a four-platoon system, with nine to ten personnel assigned per shift, and an eight-person minimum staffing level, whereas, the South Orange FD uses a three-platoon system, with each platoon comprised of eight members and a six-person minimum staffing level. Both fire departments will retain the same current minimum staffing level, almost doubling the response of firefighters in both towns responding to a primary alarm.

Claim: Collum’s plan to kill our fire department only saves homes $10 per year.

  • Response: This is incorrect. For example, in 2018 alone, South Orange taxpayers incurred $567,540.48 in “overtime” costs. We cannot afford to subsidize inefficiencies in any department, particularly the one representing the second largest cost-driver in our municipal budget. Eliminating excessive overtime by operating a smaller department amounts to $100 a household minimally, and more important than cost saving or cost avoidance is the better delivery of fire services to our two towns.

Claim: There is an unreleased draft document that Collum has stood by and refused to make public. We [the South Orange Forward campaign] “call on Village President Sheena Collum to release the full draft proposal immediately.”

  • Response: As the current Village President, I take my fiduciary responsibility very seriously and will not breach my oath of office or agreements authorized by the governing body by prematurely releasing draft documents considered “consultative and deliberative.” However, it’s important to note, with all negotiations, documents become dated during the process. For example, meetings in March – with representatives from the state, both town’s fire departments and union representatives – will factor into how we approach this consolidation; those details are not yet ready for public release and there are still many decisions to be made. As always, all final agreements will follow our long-standing, statutory process of introduction, public comment, and any necessary amendments or final adoption.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this further and encourage you to contact me. Additionally, our campaign is trying to coordinate a series of debates and would like to cover this as a stand-alone issue.


Sheena Collum