ABOUT THOSE SURVEYS…
Over the last several years your department should have received several different requests to answer surveys. Depending on what was being asked, the survey was either to gather information for the Chiefs Association or to assist the Fire Service Working Group in their effort to distribute equipment that was purchased through UASI funding. I thought that this would be an appropriate spot to explain the need for, and the differences with the surveys that were sent.
First, let me review a survey that originally sent out 2017-2018 asking about personnel staffing. That survey was sent out on behalf of the Chiefs Association to determine what the average amount of available volunteers were in your department and if your department could meet the NFPA standard that calls for volunteer departments to be able to put 15 fully capable firefighters (no light duty or outside only personnel) on the scene in nine minutes, 90% of the time. The reason behind the survey being sent was that there had been several discussions at Association meetings asking what could be done about the low volunteer firefighter turnout, especially during the daytime hours. This problem also affects career departments in the County when mutual-aid coverage is slow to respond or cannot get in service at all. One of the questions that was asked more than once was what the County politicians could do for the fire service regarding the problems of recruitment and retention.
For us to move forward speaking to the County Executive or the Freeholders, information on how bad the problem is would have to be gathered. Afterall, if we go looking for help with the problem, we need to know how bad the problem is when they ask us that question. And we need to have answers when they ask us what exactly we are looking for. The point of the survey was to get answers for those questions. Unfortunately, the majority of the departments in the County never returned surveys. Of those that did, most answered that having sufficient volunteer response to meet the standard was not achievable. So, where do we go from here? There is still the issue of needing to gather the data. This means sending out an additional survey. For those departments that did already answer it gives them an opportunity to update response information, and for those who did not answer, well, the hope is the next time that your department will complete it.
I’m sure some are asking why the surveys are needed at all; after all we know there is a problem and we can just keep calling for mutual aid. The answer is that we need to know your response issues because we will be meeting with the politicians. The Association will be looking to sponsor an informational summit in the Spring of 2020. This summit will be inviting not only the local and county level elected officials, but also State level assembly people as well as representatives from the Division of Fire Safety. The expectation is that this summit will be held during the day and middle of the week, so the invited officials can make themselves available during their work hours. We need information so your answers can be heard if you cannot make this event. More information will be forthcoming when we can confirm the date.
Now, about those other surveys. The Fire Service Working Group is a subcommittee of the County Terrorism Task Force Committee. This Committee in turn reports to the Northern New Jersey Urban Areas Securities Initiative task force. In a brief explanation, funding that comes down from the federal level, through the Attorney General’s office, where it is distributed down to the Northern District area, and then down to the level of the counties that are in the district. The county level funding is eventually split up with the Office of Emergency Management, various law enforcement groups, and the first responder working groups. The main purpose of the Fire Service Working Group is to determine what the needs of the fire departments in the county are, coupled with coming up with an approximate budget level, and when purchased, determining how the requested equipment will be distributed. The Working Group is made up of representatives of volunteer service, the career service, the County Fire Marshall’s office, the County Mutual Aid Coordinator, hazardous materials team members and the President of the Bergen County Fire Chiefs Association who serves as the chairman.
The determination of equipment distribution is based off of the surveys that get answered and returned. The surveys are distributed by email through the contact list kept by the Chiefs Association. If you don’t think that your department has received these surveys in the past, you should email the Association with a correct email address. Over the years, rad meters, chemical protective suits, water rescue equipment, ballistic PPE and other items have been given out to departments based on the returned surveys. In the near future, additional water suits and active shooter personal protective equipment is expected to be distributed. The fact of the matter is for the last survey that was sent out, only 19 were returned for the 69 departments that received them. Like the lottery, your department has to be in it, to win it. That is why the surveys need to be answered and returned. These surveys also allow us to meet the mandate of a distribution criteria and paper trail that is called for under a grant-funded system. Unfortunately, some departments must be turned down for equipment because they do not meet the stipulated criteria, such as a lack of having enough members trained in water rescue or in the case of the ballistic PPE, there is no MOU in place with local police department. Returned surveys also give the Working Group an idea of much funding we should be asking for, to try and meet the demands for not only equipment, but for training as well. It is a fact that the UASI funding has been getting reduced over the last several years. Our lack to show a need for monies for training and equipment means that we can expect a smaller piece of the budget pie in the future.
Also, as 2019 draws to a close, I implore you to stay involved with this Association if you are an out-going Chief, and please get involved if you are an incoming Chief or a company level officer. For us to have a strong voice to represent the Bergen County Fire Service we need input from all areas of the county.