Princeton paid firefighters start work

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The Princeton Fire Department’s first paid firefighters have joined forces with the fire department’s volunteers, marking the start of a new era of firefighting in the community.

Following a week-long orientation program, the paid firefighters began working their standard shifts of 24 hours on duty and 48 hours off duty on Feb. 10.  The firehouse will be staffed around the clock, every day of the year.

All of the paid firefighters had served as volunteers with the Princeton Fire Department before the conversion to a combination fire department made up of paid firefighters and volunteer firefighters.

Princeton has filled five of the six slots for paid firefighters, Administrator Marc Dashield said. The town is in the process of filling the sixth opening. In the interim, that position will be filled by a combination of per diem and volunteer firefighters.

The paid firefighters work in two-man crews, Dashield said. The paid firefighters will “absolutely not” replace the volunteer firefighters, he said. The goal is to support the volunteers.

All of the paid firefighters are qualified to drive the three fire trucks that are housed at the Princeton Fire Department headquarters on Witherspoon Street.

“There were times when the volunteers showed up and there was no one who was qualified to drive the fire truck, or there were times when two volunteers showed up and there were not enough crew members (to respond),” Dashield said.

“With two paid firefighters at the firehouse, we should be able to get a fire truck out of the firehouse more quickly. The paid firefighters are there to fill the gap to get the fire truck out. Having them (at the firehouse) will make it a lot easier,” he said.

A fire truck can leave the firehouse with a three-man crew to respond to calls such as smoke alarms or carbon monoxide alarms, but a fourth firefighter is needed to round out the crew to fight a fire, Dashield said. Of course, more than four firefighters would be needed to fight a fire.

The move to hire the six full-time, paid firefighters put an end to the Princeton Fire Department’s 232-year history as an all-volunteer fire department.

The Princeton Fire Department was organized in 1788, which made it one of the oldest all-volunteer fire companies in New Jersey.

The Princeton Council budgeted money in its 2019 municipal budget to hire six full-time, paid firefighters. The ordinance that was approved by the council last month put the plan into effect.

The Princeton Council also adopted a salary ordinance that set the paid firefighters’ salary range at $49,000 to $54,500. That ordinance also was adopted at the council’s Jan. 27 meeting.

The recommendation to hire full-time paid firefighters grew out of a study of the Princeton Fire Department by the Rodgers Group at the request of the Princeton Council.

The consultant’s report offered 19 recommendations that addressed fire department operations and how it could encourage more volunteer members.

One of the recommendations called for establishing a more robust staffing plan for the Princeton Fire Department, to include hiring paid firefighters to provide a more timely and consistent response to fire and other emergencies while steps were taken to attract more volunteers.

The Princeton Fire Department counted 81 volunteer members at the time of the study, according to the Rodgers Group. Of those members, 29 were trained and qualified to fight fires.

But of those 29 volunteers, 10 to 15 responded to calls on a regular basis. Only about half of those volunteers lived in Princeton. The remainder lived out of town, which meant it takes longer to drive to the firehouse and respond to a call – and the longer it takes to get to a call.