After 97 years, N.J. station to halt emergency operations due to low staff numbers
The Cedar Brook Volunteer Fire Company had seven volunteer firefighters at the time response operations ceased
CAMDEN COUNTY, N.J. — Ordinarily, it would not be odd to see fire trucks blaring their horns as they exited the parking lot of the Cedar Brook Volunteer Fire Company to respond to an emergency.
On Monday, it was mostly quiet.
The occasional phone would ring inside, or Winslow Township Fire Chief Marc Rigberg could be heard heading to a training session.
Following a notice to the community on April 12, the volunteer fire station in Camden County — which had been running since 1925 — stopped deploying firefighters due to low staff levels, officials in the township said.
“It’s not just us,” Rigberg told NJ Advance Media on Monday afternoon, while walking through the Sicklerville station, which remains the department’s headquarters.
“If you were to pick up the phone today, and call any fire chief of a combination of full-time and volunteer or all-volunteer fire department, they’ll say (low staff numbers) is a problem. It’s been a problem,” Rigberg added. ”You’ll get the same answer across the board.”
The Cedar Brook Volunteer Fire Company had seven volunteer firefighters at the time response operations ceased. All seven were sent to the remaining five fire stations in the township, which respond to calls in a 60 square-mile area — which includes the township and the small borough of Chesilhurst, which relies on the Winslow Township services.
Rigberg called the closure “temporary” as the company continues to reassess next steps. He noted that the fire department would need 15 volunteers at the Sicklerville station in order to reopen.
The Winslow Township Fire Department currently has a total of 35 volunteer firefighters and 22 full-time paid firefighters — with another 20 or so administrative staff members. Rigberg said a “minimum of 15 firefighters who are fully active” would be needed at each of the township’s five remaining stations to improve operations.
“We do just under 2,000 calls for service a year and demand is increasing. The community is also continuously growing, both residential and commercial,” Rigberg said.
The year Rigberg began as a volunteer firefighter in 1991, Winslow Township had just under 32,000 residents, according to the U.S. census. Last year, the census estimated about 40,000 people resided in the town.
“When I joined the fire department, there were probably about 120-plus members here, and every station had a lot of people,” the fire chief added.
Rigberg, who estimated Winslow Township has faced shortages for “at least a decade,” attributed the trend to staffing challenges faced by various industries, fewer people interested in becoming firefighters and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Camden County, there were approximately 77 fire stations in 1990 — compared to 47 stations today, the chief said.
Rigberg said volunteer firefighters are provided with a small stipend of between $60 to $90 for a six-hour period. The Winslow Township Fire Department also covers the cost of training and equipment. The fire department sends out recruiters to find candidates, promotes vacancies on social media, reminds residents of the open positions at township meetings and discuss their search for volunteer firefighters at dozens of community events.
And yet, new prospects are not submitting applications, Rigberg said.
“Unfortunately, we may have to ask (the township) for funds to hire people to help alleviate this concern and give us a better platform here to be able to respond” to emergencies, he added.
Rigberg said the problem of few volunteer firefighter applicants is not unique to Winslow Township.
According to the non-profit membership association, the National Volunteer Fire Council, there were over 884,000 volunteer firefighters across the United States in 1983 (the first year it began tracking the data). In 2018, the most recent year available, that figure was up to 745,000 after hitting an all-time low of 682,600 the year prior.
While it reckons with continued low staff numbers, Rigberg said the Winslow Township Fire Department has measures in place to ensure it reduces response times.
“Not to beat or diminish anything, but if the trash gets missed one day, they can always come around to pick it up the next day. For this, we have response times and we need proper staff to be able to function as an incidents team,” Rigberg said. “The public is expecting a high level of service when that moment comes because we don’t get a second bite at the apple.”
In addition to having staff on hand, Rigberg said volunteer and full-time firefighters are available to arrive on time to incidents — regardless of where they are in the township.
“I can assure you that all necessary steps have been taken to adjust our response protocols to meet the needs of the community and your safety, and this will be continuously evaluated,” he said to the community in a letter earlier this month.
Winslow Township Mayor Marie Lawrence did not immediately respond for comment.