By JOHN T. WARD
Under a consolidation plan in the works for three years, the Relief Engine Company, stranded for the past two years without a firetruck, will become a keeper of borough firefighting history, Chief Stu Jensen announced Wednesday.
The borough’s volunteer fire department consists of six companies, each a separate nonprofit entity, as well as the First Aid and Rescue Squad. But in recent years the borough, which owned three of the firehouses, has sold two, citing the prohibitive costs of modernizing century-old structures.
In the process of an ensuing realignment, Relief ‘s sole firetruck, an engine, was relocated to Westside Hose Company two years ago, leaving the Drummond Place firehouse it without any apparatus for its roster of 20 members to operate.
“It kind of left one company in a limbo state,” Jensen told the audience at the council’s semimonthly meeting Wednesday night.
“The question was, how do we continue this consolidation but recognize the company and the members, and not just their service but the generations of service in that company?”
The solution, Jensen said, was to deactivate Relief as a firefighting unit, and rename it the Historical Relief Engine Company, with a mission of preserving both company and department history. It will become an auxiliary unit of the department, and its members will no longer participate in the annual rotation among the companies of the chief’s helmet, Jensen said.
Jensen told redbankgreen that the plan had been approved by the fire department’s executive council, which represents all six companies. An ordinance formalizing the changes was introduced by the council and is expected to win approval at the March 14 meeting.
Mayor Pasquale Menna, who has served for decades as the department chaplain, said the change “addresses reality” while creating “a more unified body.”
Jensen told the council and audience that the aim was “to make it a change that was acceptable to everybody, and to the members of the Relief company in particular.”
Relief’s members must join another company in order to continue fighting fires, and several already have, said Jensen. Under the reciprocal plan, volunteers in other companies may now also join Relief to support its historic preservation mission, he said. Until now, simultaneous membership in two companies was prohibited, he said.
In terms of “preservation and honor, I think it does a good job,” Jensen told the council. And for him as chief, “from an operational standpoint, it makes things a lot cleaner,” he said.
Greg Oliva, president of the executive council, told the governing body that the aim of the consolidation was to “save costs and streamline and unify services for the borough.”
“I think we’ve all come to an amicable solution, and it’s the best thing for the borough at this time,” said Oliva, a member of the Union Hose company.
Menna said that while changing demographics and other factors were forcing many towns to switch from volunteer to paid fire protection, “the good news is that we still have a very vibrant, very active, very committed fire department that will work out our challenges as they’ve done this evening.”
Jim Bruno, who heads the Relief house, declined comment, but 25-year Relief member Steve George told redbankgreen that the solution was in fact amicable.
“We’re good,” he said. “It’s the oldest fire company, and now it will be preserved and will always be remembered as a historical site. That’s fact.”
While the garage bay that was long home to a firetruck now houses an Alert ambulance, the Relief company retains its space on the second floor of the Drummond Place house, which is owned by St. James Church. No plans have yet been formulated for assembling and displaying historic artifacts, George said.
The town’s first firefighting company was known as the Navesink Hook, Ladder and Bucket when it was established on June 28, 1872; the word “bucket” was dropped in 1873, according to a history on the borough website. The Relief company was the second, instituted on February 3, 1880 —just one week before the creation of the Independent Engine Company — and moved into its present home on Drummond Place in 1914.
The department’s consolidation began with the borough’s announcement in 2014 that it would vacate and sell the home of the Liberty Hose firehouse on White Street. That building’s virtual twin, the home of the Independent Engine on Mechanic Street, met the same fate 2016. Both were auctioned off to new owners. The White Street building is slated to be converted to the home of Ross Brewing Company , with two second-floor apartments, and the Independent house won approval last month for conversion to a home decorating business.
The Liberty Hose and Independent companies still exist, sharing space at the First Aid and Rescue Squad headquarters on Spring Street. The arrangement is working out “really well,” Jensen said, with each company having its own allocation of space for equipment while contributing to costs.