In its earliest days, the new joint operation is already seeing an uptick in volunteerism and improvements in responses to calls for service.
By Matt Skoufalos | January 25, 2023
Before he became a career firefighter, Cherry Hill Fire Battalion Chief Jason Houck learned the ropes as a volunteer with his hometown Barrington Fire Company.
The Houck family has a long legacy in the Barrington fire service, with Jason’s contributions among them.
He served in various leadership positions there, including eight years as Barrington Fire Chief, a title he relinquished in 2017 to become a training officer.
“I wouldn’t be the firefighter I am today if it wasn’t for the people in Barrington,” Houck said; “the people who held me to a standard and told me the right and wrong way to do it. We always push that standard forward.”
But in mid-2020, he stepped away almost completely from the organization that had been a part of his life for decades. And although no one from the department asked him about his decision, Houck knows what he would have said.
“If you would have asked me, I would have told you: we need to clean this up,” Houck said. “We need to do better.
“There’s professional standards you need to uphold,” he said. “At some point, those standards weren’t being met to my comfort level.”
Among Houck’s professional objections was the department’s lack of qualified, active-duty firefighters to respond to emergencies, a concern that had only intensified as call volumes increased through the years.
According to Camden County Fire Incident Logs requisitioned by the Barrington Borough Council, career and volunteer staff at the Barrington Fire Department received 153 calls for service in the borough in 2021.
They responded to only 22 of them within the time frame recommended by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA): 2 minutes for career staff, and 5 minutes for volunteers.
In 70 of those incidents, the department responded outside of those thresholds, and did not respond to 61 others at all, meaning that another department within its mutual aid alliance had to cover the call.
Those numbers weren’t improved in 2022: of 143 total calls for service, the department responded to 112 of them late, and failed to respond to 14 others entirely. Only 17 were answered within the NFPA recommended window.
‘These two towns are small enough that they can combine services’
To Barrington Mayor Patti Harris, who reviewed the incident log data publicly at borough government meetings last fall, the figures demonstrated a problem that was going to take either an influx of cash or manpower to resolve.
Barrington’s historically all-volunteer fire company, like many across the region and the country, had seen its participation rate among active, qualified firefighters dip to unsustainably low levels.
(Unlike many fire departments across the region and the country, however, Barrington also endured a leadership scandal in 2019, when its chief was charged with committing multiple sexual offenses against a minor.
(Harris believes that case also led many local volunteers to distance themselves from the department.
(“We found out that we had 18-plus firefighters living in Barrington who did not volunteer in Barrington,” she said.)
Without volunteers, the cost of maintaining a full-time, career fire department that would meet the borough coverage needs could top $1.3 million annually; more than 15 percent of the annual municipal budget, the mayor said.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Haddon Heights, former Fire Chief Michael Kinky had spent years trying to broker a shared service agreement with neighboring fire departments in Barrington and Audubon to establish a paid daytime fire crew that could respond to calls for service in multiple towns. Talks didn’t progress in either community.
“We’re in a situation where the Haddon Heights taxpayer is paying a lot of money for a paid crew,” Kinky told NJ Pen in 2022. “We’re called into other towns regularly to handle any run-of-the-mill incident. Other towns aren’t putting forth the same commitment.”
As recently as 2017, Barrington and Haddon Heights had contemplated formally establishing a joint fire service. Independent studies commissioned 20 years earlier had come to the same conclusion, but the work of crafting a shared-service agreement and developing a new organizational structure had never before been finalized.
“These two towns are small enough that they can combine services, share volunteers, share chiefs, share efforts, share money,” Harris said.
“There’s a lot of people that can come together and really create this great fire service. [Haddon Heights] Mayor [Zach] Houck, myself, their public safety committee, and our councils, worked towards one common goal.”
‘Save a life, put out a fire, make sure people are safe’
The agreement that eventually was brokered didn’t come without its share of public outcry.
In September 2022, the Barrington Fire Company — the nonprofit organization supporting the borough fire department — launched a public campaign warning the community that “residents are being kept in the dark” about the talks.
One letter claimed that sharing services with Haddon Heights could possibly lead to slower response times, losses of life, property, and manpower for the department, and “lack of proper direction of taxpayer funds.”
After a series of open meetings hosted by both the Barrington Fire Company and the borough council, the two sides eventually came to terms.
“The only issues that they presented in that meeting were personality concerns with clashing with members of the Haddon Heights department,” Barrington Council President Kyle Hanson said. “There were no real safety concerns.”
Hanson believes the substance of the disconnect to have been largely cultural; however, he noted that sharing firefighting responsibilities across municipal borders could never detract from the century-plus of service that both departments have provided to their communities.
“Our goal is never to erase or eclipse the legacy of the families that have participated in those companies,” Hanson said. “Our goal is to provide fire service for the people of this community. A small percentage of people weren’t happy about it, but they were loud and online.
“You either have to move on, work together as adults for the betterment of the community, or you’re welcome to walk away,” he said.
Harris also pointed out that the community-driven activities of the Barrington Fire Company wouldn’t be affected in any way by the agreement.
“We’re not taking away Santa rides and hoagie sales,” she said. “You have to make sure that when your house is on fire, and you call 9-1-1, someone is coming to your house to save you. That other stuff, that’s part of who Barrington is, but that’s not the ultimate priority.
“One common purpose is to save a life, put out a fire, make sure people are safe,” Harris said. “That’s a great goal, and a common good. I think these two towns are going to be the example to other towns of what can be done if you put aside the nonsense and work for the residents.”
The mayor hopes that, with the joint company finding its footing in practice as well as in theory, local volunteers will rejoin the fire service from both participating communities.
“I know there’s people who want to get involved,” Harris said. “We knew that; they were telling us. That’s positive. I would hope that the people who were the naysayers would look and say, ‘I want to give it a chance, and then I’ll make my decision.’
Haddon Heights Mayor Zach Houck, a longtime volunteer with the Barrington Fire Department, and a Captain and career firefighter in the Cherry Hill Fire Department, said the joint Barrington-Haddon Heights Fire Department “is something that’s been 30 years in the making.”
He encouraged the members of both organizations to lean on their rich legacies in working to establish an emergency service that will be able to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
“I applaud Barrington,” Zach Houck said. “It’s always tough for leaders in politics to say, ‘I’m going to take this 100-year-old organization and merge it with another 100-year-old organization.’
“Tied to my family, I have over 30 members of Barrington Fire Company in the last century,” he said. “Their slogan is, ‘Pride in the Past, Dedicated to the Future.’ There’s a second part to that [motto]; we’re taking that next step.”
‘I want to be the one to be able to bring this to the finish line’
Leading the new Barrington-Haddon Heights Fire Department as its chief is Joseph P. Hales, Jr., the current Camden County Fire Marshal, and a firefighter with ties to both departments.
Hales, Jr. began his firefighting career as a junior explorer in the Barrington Fire Department in 2007, and was hired as a full-time firefighter/EMT in Haddon Heights in 2016.
He became county fire marshal in 2018, and served as assistant chief for the Haddon Heights Fire Department under Kinky in 2022.
The new department is young, Hales, Jr. said, with most firefighters having 10 years or less of experience, and a lot of them first-generation, like himself. He described the culture that he’s working to implement as progressive, and said he feels supported by both career and volunteer members of the joint company in doing so.
In addition to sending three new members to fire school next month — residents from both communities — the Barrington-Haddon Heights Fire Department recently has welcomed back several local volunteers who’d previously served with either or both departments.
“It’s been going better than expected,” Hales, Jr. said. “We hung 13 sets of gear that weren’t hung 17 days ago; qualified people who can just get right on the truck. People have been showing up, they’ve been doing their jobs; they’re excited about it.”
The chief believes the new department will forge its own identity as it begins to establish its operational capacity; foremost, he wants it to be well-organized and well-resourced.
“I want to be the one to be able to bring this to the finish line,” Hales, Jr. said. “I’m not going to be in this position forever, but I would like to get it to the next step where it can be handed off to someone else, and they can run it from there.
“The tradition will still be there,” he said; “the fire department has just gained personnel and equipment to perform the job duties for the residents. The number-one goal is to make sure that we have staffing to provide services to the residents of both towns.”
Numerous operational changes already are being implemented, from streamlining reporting processes, to acquainting personnel with one another’s fire stations, to re-defining dispatching alerts.
Career firefighters from the joint operation will work out of the Barrington fire house from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, responding to calls in both communities.
The Barrington station was chosen not only because its fire apparatus is newer, Hales, Jr. said, but because it’s centrally located to most easily reach both Haddon Heights and Barrington addresses, as well as those in its mutual-aid region: Audubon, Bellmawr, Haddonfield, Lawnside, Mount Ephraim, and Runnemede.
The critical element of both communities joining forces is guaranteeing that a minimum number of professional staff are available to respond to a fire call during the daylight hours.
To respond to a call, a full crew includes at least three personnel: a qualified driver, a qualified officer, and a qualified firefighter. In the event of a fire, a minimum of 17 firefighters must be on-scene within 10 minutes, a count that’s often backfilled by mutual aid responses from multiple surrounding communities.
“Very rarely does no one show up,” Hales, Jr. said, “but prior to this, probably 10 to 15 times a year, we wouldn’t be able to get a qualified crew out the door. Five a.m. to 8 a.m. was the hardest time to fill, whether people were getting ready for their jobs, or [providing] childcare.”
In the first two weeks of January 2023, the combined fire service had 30 calls for service, and averaged nine qualified firefighters per call, up to as many as 13 firefighters on a single call, whether on two trucks from Barrington or Haddon Heights, or one from each.
“That’s the goal of this,” Hales, Jr. said, “to make sure we put as many people there as possible. Safety is the biggest factor.”
To date, the biggest challenge for the joint operation is that it’s working out of two separate fire stations; ideally, Hales, Jr. said, the service would be housed out of a single building. Prior conversations between the Barrington and Haddon Heights municipal governments had identified the former Haddon Heights Public Works building on West Atlantic Avenue as a potential site in which to house a combined fire service. If the arrangement works, the chief said he could see that project being explored within the next five years.
“We are in a one-year trial period, but even in the first 16 days, I don’t see it going back,” Hales, Jr. said.
“We’ve wanted it done for years and years, and it should have been done years ago.
“We’re here for providing a service for the residents,” he said.
“We needed to do this, and both towns needed us to do it.”
Beyond reducing the vehicle fleets of both companies, some of which are aging, and cutting back on the costs of operating in two buildings, a combined fire service housed in a single building would free up both towns to redevelop the land on which their present firehouses are situated.
Moreover, it could help overcome the deployment complications associated with the current Haddon Heights Fire Department, which is located behind the borough public library, and is accessible to Station Avenue only via an alleyway.
“With the foot traffic on Station Avenue it’s not an ideal location,” Hales, Jr. said. “We really need one building where everyone comes to one building, everything is done in one building; that’s the end goal.”
Both communities are participating in a LEAP grant with Haddonfield to study whether any efficiencies can be derived from sharing firefighting costs and duties across all three towns. That study will be finalized this year, with a report due back to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs on findings and a plan by October, said Haddonfield Mayor Colleen Bianco Bezich.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction with two of the three [communities] collaborating already,” Bianco Bezich said. “If there’s something that comes out of it for the sharing of any services, we can apply for an additional implementation funding.”
‘If there’s any opportunity to build and save something, this is it’
Since the finalization of the shared services agreement, Jason Houck said he’s going to “put my money where my mouth is” and re-qualify himself as a volunteer with the Barrington-Haddon Heights department.
“There’s a very small pool of resources to pull from in the fire service,” he said. “What’s best for the public is that we get on the closest fire truck we can possibly get on, and get there as quickly as possible. You put the mission before yourself, before your ego, and your pride.
“A joint firehouse gives people a chance to be a part of something new and something bigger, and have your name be part of a legacy,” he said.
“I think if there’s any opportunity to build and save something, this is it.”
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