May 14, 1994 (~estimated)
Princeton council should be adamant about physicals for active firefighters
A proposal to require physical exams for firefighters has created a backdraft of protest from some of the volunteers in Princeton’s three companies.
At a Borough Council meeting last week, firefighters — a notoriously independent breed — took turns lambasting the policy.
Borough officials say the policy is designed to safeguard the well being of the firefighters and to protect the borough and taxpayers from undue liability risk. Firefighters contend they have managed just fine without physicals for years, that they know their limitations and that mandatory exams could cut deeply into the roster of volunteers — many of whom are not combat-ready.
State law requires physicals only of firefighters who use breathing apparatus. In Princeton, an estimated 30 of the 145 volunteers do so. None are in compliance with the law. That subjects the borough, and borough taxpayers, to potential fines, and possible liability lawsuits should firefighters be injured or killed while on duty.
Firefighters point out that if the policy was adopted as proposed, Princeton would become the only fire department in the county to require physicals of all of its members. What they neglect to mention, however, is that the fire department in Princeton, unlike those in most suburban communities, is not a separate entity. It is a branch of the two municipalities, entirely funded by municipal revenues and governed by municipal ordinances. As such, it does not have the latitude other independent volunteer fire departments have, and it poses liability problems they do not share.
For firefighters over the age of 40 — who constitute a majority of the members of the three companies — annual physicals would be required. Those in their 30s would be required to take one every two years and those under 30 would have to take one every three years. Last month, the borough began requiring pre-placement physicals for candidates wishing to join the department.
Most of the opposition to the plan, according to Borough Councilman Mark Freda, himself a volunteer, has come from the older members of the department, many of whom stopped fighting fires years ago. He estimates that about one of every three firefighters on the active roster actually responds to calls. There should be a way to exempt the others from the physicals.
There also would appear to be room for compromise on the type and frequency of physical exams. The borough administrator has estimated that the cost of providing physical exams to each of the firefighters would run about $10,000 a year. Each physical would cost S250 to $300. That’s a lot of money to expend, particularly on firefighters who have retired from active duty.
Those who do go out on calls, however, should be required to take the physical. Firefighters are responsible for more than their own lives when they respond to an emergency. A firefighter who cannot fulfill the expected role at a fire scene could place other volunteers in jeopardy, as well as endangering the lives of fire victims. No one wants to let insurance paperwork destroy the fire department, but everyone should be able to agree that the dangerous and physically taxing job of the firefighter requires certain levels of strength and stamina. To use a war analogy, when the heat is on no one wants to be in a foxhole with someone who can’t lock and load.
The township administrator has been instructed to sit down with the chiefs to work out some of these problems. There may be room for compromise on the specifics of the exams, but the Borough Council should not back off on its insistence that today’s firefighters be physically up to the task.