Tommy Welsh arrives at the Westside Hose Company following his election as Red Bank fire chief last week. Below, the borough-owned Liberty Hose firehouse is in the process of being vacated because it needs upgrades the town cannot afford. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
A new, million-dollar ladder truck, firehouse consolidation and pervasive manpowwer issues are on the table as Red Bank’s next fire chief takes the helm on January 1.
For chief-elect Tommy Welsh, it’s the second time around as head of of the all-volunteer department, having served as chief in 1996. This time, however, the department is on the apron to some of its biggest changes in a generation.
“We’re in the middle of some history here,” he told redbankgreen at a party to celebrate his election last week.
Consolidation would mean a new home for the communications command center built by former Chief Alan Soden, Sr. At the Union Hose Company on Shrewsbury Avenue. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
Among the big issues on the new chief’s desk:
• A borough council-sanctioned committee of ex-chiefs is exploring ways to combine elements of the department, now separated into six independent companies, three of which – Westside Hose on Leighton Avenue, Union Hose on Shrewsbury Avenue and Navesink Hook and Ladder, on Mechanic Street – own their own firehouses. Two of them, Westside and Union, are in advanced talks about selling their houses and building a new central command for the West Side.
“We’re on our way” with consolidation, Welsh said. Asked whether it might happen under his watch, Welsh said, it could. “It’ll happen as fast as the department lets it,” he said.
• A precursor to voluntary consolidation is already underway, forced by economics, as the Liberty Hose Company abandons its 103-year-old home on White Street and relocates to the Red Bank First Aid Squad, on Spring Street. The borough owns the White Street firehouse, which is in dire need of renovations the borough can’t afford, said Mayor Pasquale Menna.
• Navesink Ladder recently took delivery of a new, $1 million truck, though it’s not fully in service.
Then there’s the 21st-century challenge of finding volunteers to jump on that rig and others at at moment’s notice. The department now counts about 135 volunteers, down more than 30 percent in the past 25 years, Welsh said.
“We’re all taxpayers, we’re all community, we want people to be part of us,” said Welsh, who in his day job is the deputy fire marshal for the borough and heads its office of emergency management. “Because of the times, with people’s jobs, it’s hard. Hey, I get that. Everybody gets it. But we’ve got to get people to commit to being volunteers.”
And what’s the key, as he sees it?
“Build it and they will come,” he said. “We want to put a product out there that people want to be part of, and the fire department, in every community, has historically been that.” He aid he’d like to see a return to old-fashioned firemen’s fairs, among other activities.
Welsh, 46, has been a firefighter since he was 18 years old, and served under his father, John Welsh, who was chief in 1990. Six years later, the younger Welsh became chief himself.
Returns to the top post have happened before in Red Bank. Retired police captain Pete DeFazio was a two-time fire chief. The current chief, TD Doremus, is a son of Tommy Doremus, who served as chief twice. And Alan Soden, Jr. has served twice as well.
And like Welsh, both his deputies next year – First Deputy Joe Lauterwasser and Second Deputy Chris Soden, presumptive chiefs for 2016 and 2017 – are the sons of ex-chiefs. Soden is also the brother of an ex-chief.
“A lot of family,” Welsh says.
One of his goals, he said, is to “try to bridge the gap between the older, experienced guys from when we had [more] fires and the not-so-expereinced who are smart and trained for fire.”
So far this year, firefighters have responded to 468 alarms, down from 641 calls in 2012, when more than 100 Hurricane Sandy-related emergencies were reported.