By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
There’s no mistaking the seriousness of a situation when the white-and-red cruiser marked ‘6431’ pulls in front of your home or business.
The man behind the wheel is something of a fate holder, there to deliver good news or bad, to tell what you did right or wrong, to say you’re ready to open for business or that there’s more work to do.
“When the 31 rolls up, they know it’s John,” said John Drucker, Red Bank’s fire inspector and building code official, positions akin to taxman in terms of the dread they inspire.
But Drucker, 53, says his aim is to make sure a home- or businessowner has followed every step required to complete a project. It’s a job designed to focus on minutia, and can send property owners to their flashpoints. But it’s a job that, once done, has a payoff for everybody involved, he says.
Drucker at a fire at The Metropolitan apartments last week. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)
“He’s by the book,” said Richard Isabella, who recently opened Don Francisco Cigars on Wallace Street. “If we pass Mr. Drucker’s examination, we know everything was done right. I was relieved when he said ‘go.’ I knew nobody would say anything.”
Often seen as the bearer of bad news, Drucker was recognized last month as the Automatic Fire Alarm Association‘s Man of the Year, adding an accolade to an already impressive resumé in the world of firefighting and fire protection.
Drucker got his start in firefighting as a teenaged deputy fire marshal alongside Red Bank’s Administrator and Fire Marshal Stanley Sickels at Monmouth Park Racetrack in Oceanport in 1976. He was also a volunteer for the Middletown Fire Department, where he’s currently president of the town’s No. 1 Company.
From Monmouth Park, he moved into the private sector, and spent 15 years with Siemens Fire Safety. There, he managed the large-scale, $78 million replacement of the World Trade Center’s fire protection system following the 1993 truck bombing a job that lasted eight years and might have put him at the Twin Towers on September 11, 2011. At that time, Drucker was assigned to a position that had him working from two sites: at the World Trade Center and an office in Pine Brook, New Jersey.
“So, in a matter of months before 9/11, I was back and forth between Pine Brook and the World Trade Center,” Drucker said. “By fluke of schedule, I would have been in there.”
The attacks ended his job at the Trade Center, and in 2002, Drucker was hired in Red Bank as the fire protection subcode official. In his time with the borough, he’s taken on more responsibilities as he’s obtained licenses for electrical and building inspection.
On any given day, Drucker is in the 31 cruiser shuttling from inspection to inspection, be it a small home project or for a new business moving in. He’s a common face on-site, seeing each project through, literally from the ground up. His job is one that requires acute attention to detail, from making sure foundations are in the correct location, pipes are tested to standard pressure settings and sprinkler systems are functional. He’s the one who signs the permits, giving the OK to move on to the next step.
Sometimes, he’ll notice a step was missed or not done according to approved plans.
“Quite often we’ll see a contractor deviate. They’ll start to go out on some path that’s not there or not included (in the plans), and invariably results in a delay,” Drucker said.
The corrective measures he orders tend to take the wind out of a project’s sails because not only is there a delay, there’s a cost.
“Some of the things that are in the code are invariably going to cost money,” he said. “It’s not that people don’t want to be safe, it’s not that they don’t want to comply with the code, it’s that there’s a cost associated with it.
“It’s tough, but the regulations are the regulations. We’re merely the enforcement agency.”
Drucker doesn’t deviate from regulations, and the two most important words in his professional vocabulary are “due diligence,” he said.
It’s reflected most often in the moans and groans from prospective business owners looking to get their doors open as soon as possible.
Jimmy Vastardis, who owns the newly opened Blue Water Seafood on Broad Street, said his business hit a number of issues that set his restaurant’s opening back. They were mostly architectural snags, he said, and Drucker was there at every step when they needed him to move the ball forward, and actually helped the business get open as soon as possible.
“He was great,” Vastardis said. “He guided me to certain things I needed done, and we did it. He does things right. He did what he had to do.”
Drucker points to Blue Water as an example of how, although his job can send stress levels high, can end with success. Blue Water is bustling, but more importantly, it’s safe, he said.
“To watch a business open and then flourish, that really is the best,” Drucker said. “As a fire protection official, to know that you did that in a safe way, to me that’s the reward.”
Mayor Pasquale Menna, in recognizing Drucker for his person of the year award, said that when a project begins, a lot of business and home owners grumble over his strict adherence to the regulations, but by the end, “they’ll call back and say, ‘You know what? John Drucker was right.”
“A lot of the time the news we give is not well-received,” Drucker said. “But the name of the game is safety.”