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Two Saddle River fire chiefs resign after ‘alarming’ number of unanswered calls

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: What they say are unanswered requests to remedy insufficient manpower, and the resulting potential for a catastrophe, have led two successive Saddle River fire chiefs to resign their positions.

“Over the last few years we have missed up to 40% of our call volume, which totals well over a hundred unanswered calls per year,” Brad Stio wrote to Mayor Samuel S. Raia in his resignation letter last week.

“Sadly, these delayed responses include schools, an assisted living facility, a hospice center, businesses, and private dwellings,” says the letter, a copy of which was obtained by CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

A message was left this morning for Raia with a clerk at borough hall who said she would get it to him “right away.” An email also was sent to him.

Stio’s predecessor as chief, Kenneth Warr, initially requested help after the department lost several of its volunteers earlier this year. He resigned after it wasn’t acted upon.

Attempts to get on the council agenda to air the problem have failed, Warr said.

Although Upper Saddle River and Ho-Ho-Kus have been stellar in covering, there are no 24/7 automatic aid agreements with surrounding departments.

“They cannot subsidize fire protection in our borough,” Warr told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

Responding members coming from a combined area covering a quarter of Bergen County, often with a driving time of more than seven minutes, he added.

“This is not only inefficient but a safety risk for our responding firefighters,” Warr said.

Stio said he was equally frustrated.

In his letter to Raia, he wrote: “The Saddle River Fire Department is not responding in compliance with any accepted standard of practice nor within a level to operate safely and practically.

“Routinely, we still respond to emergencies with one or two firefighters usually well after 10-20 minutes of initial dispatch, if at all,” he says in the letter to Raia, copies of which were sent to all borough council members and firefighters.

Stio says he has the documentation that shows manpower numbers and an “alarming number” of calls that go unanswered.

“So far in 2014 we have had an average of 60% of duty shifts unfilled due to insufficient staffing,” he wrote. “This means that ultimately, our residents are left with inadequate and unsafe fire and EMS protection.

“Fire doubles in size every minute, which ultimately means that every extra minute we spend operating with these delays, a life could be in jeopardy.”

Stio added that the trouble experienced by the more than 100-year-old department “is no fault of any of our current dedicated volunteers.”

He urged the mayor and council to “establish a level of protection that meets the needs of this expanding borough and its residents.”

This includes establishing borough EMS services to supplement coverage from Valley Hospital. Through no fault of the hospital, the firefighters said, response can sometimes take up to 20 minutes. “De-coupling” services would also allow firefighters to respond only to non-EMS calls, they said.

All of this could be done, the firefighters say, without having to consider creating a paid department.

Other suggestions have been floated by candidates for office — including bringing back firefighters who’ve left after clashes with an official no longer with the borough; increasing amenities to attract and retain volunteers; boosting financial support and recognition to neighboring departments while the borough rebuilds its own; and offering tax rebates or restructured stipends for volunteers from the borough.

Current incentives in the duty shift program encourage non-residents to spend the night at the firehouse but not residents who can serve a night shift from home and be called out of bed on an as-needed basis.

Given the current state of the department, Stio said, he can “no longer take the risk of a possible avoidable tragic occurrence from the lack of staffing.”

So, he said, he’s remaining an active firefighter but resigning as chief.

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