Incensed firefighters protest exams

May 14, 1994

The Times

Incensed firefighters protest exams

By Peter Aseltine

Staff Writer

PRINCETON BOROUGH —When Princeton firefighters drove four fire engines up to the steps of Borough Hall yesterday morning, they called it a “driver training run,” but their real truck was with the borough administrator over a proposed requirement that they pass periodic doctor’s exams.

Administrator Tom Shannon knew the firefighters were coming and stepped outside to meet them. While the 10 a.m. meeting was cordial, Shannon appear unhappy over the way the firefighters expressed themselves. Asked what he thought of the demonstration, he said, “No comment.”

Firefighters say the issue boils down to whether borough officials should be telling longtime volunteers that they may not be fit to put out fires.

Despite his displeasure over the demonstration, Shannon’s words to the firefighters were conciliatory.

“I’m hopeful that we can compromise. Pm willing to compromise and negotiate,” he said.

Shannon would not specify what he had in mind, but he suggested he may be willing to recommend that current firefighters be exempted from any blanket requirement concerning medical exams.

“I think it’s important that we have some sort of physical exams, but it may not have to be for people who are already on the force,” Shannon said.

Shannon met on Wednesday with the chiefs of the three companies that make up the Princeton Fire Department. He said the meeting was strictly an opportunity for him to listen to the concerns of firefighters.

Ray Wadsworth, a borough councilman and firefighter, initiated yesterday’s gathering, which involved about 15 firefighters. He said the fire department has been in turmoil since last month, when Shannon unveiled a draft of the new medical policy for firefighters.

Firefighters have argued that the policy would exclude many active members of the department from fighting fires, because a majority of the roughly 150 members are over 40 and many are out of shape.

They also have said taxpayers should not be saddled with the cost of the physicals, which borough officials say would be about $300 per firefighter. Shannon says the policy was intended to protect the health of the firefighters and shield the borough from liability.

The department’s volunteers al…

…ways have been required to pass a doctor’s exam before joining the department. In addition, state regulations require that any firefighter who wears an air tank must pass an annual physical, a requirement that has been largely ignored in the past, firefighters concede.

But the new policy, as originally ‘drafted, would have required periodic physicals for all firefighters, regardless of their duties. In addition, firefighters object to a new requirement that entrance physicals be performed by a borough-appointed doctor, not a firefighter’s family doctor.

Wadsworth says any rule requiring physicals for current firefighters who don’t use air tanks would be unacceptable to the volunteers. He said he is confident that Shannon and borough council will give in on that point.

Shannon said he hopes to draft a new proposal within the next month.

At a council meeting on April 26, firefighters angered over the proposed policy threatened to drive firetrucks to the front of borough hall and leave them. But Wadsworth said yesterday’s visit to borough hall was not a hostile demonstration — it was an attempt to restore good will.

Wadsworth urged Shannon to shake hands with each of the firefighters, and Shannon obliged. Wadsworth then spoke to the group.

“We’re out to save people and homes, not to fight among ourselves,” he said.

On Wednesday night a large meeting of the volunteer firefighters ended in confusion, with firefighters shouting at each other and accusing their leaders of buckling to the will of borough council.

Some firefighters on hand yesterday said the dispute over doctor’s exams was secondary to a larger concern that borough officials are trying to run the fire department. They said the volunteer department is supposed to be run internally by a board of engineers, consisting of 12 department officers.

Assistant Chief David Bogle, who is on the board, said it was that issue that caused the uproar at Wednesday’s meeting of the volunteers and prompted yesterday’s action.

“People feel that the board isn’t in control, and they think, ‘Who is in control?’ They don’t know,” he said.

Shannon said he has a duty to oversee all of the borough’s departments, including the fire department, but he said the chief, Benjamin Warren, and the board of engineers must run the fire department on a day-to-day basis.

“We have to respect each other’s fence lines,” Shannon said.

Wadsworth warned that if the borough meddles too much in the fire department, the volunteers might abandon ship.

“They’re going to end up with a paid fire department in here, and that’s going to cost them $2.8 million or more (per year),” he said.

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