Chapter six: Causing trouble
It took me a decade to write this story, because the few wanted to address the well-known problem. Town officials did not want to risk mass resignation, leaving it no choice but to hire professionals at many times the cost.
A reporter for a give away weekly, I wasn't supposed to break stories like these. In small towns weekly reporters can print gossip, but could rarely risk violating any of the sacred custom. Such tales were mostly left to the daily newspapers, whose reporters could sweep in and run again after leaving the town under a showder of scandlous headlines.
Even when I finally had a decade's worth of good will under my belt, the story caused some fire fighters to snub me, as town officials finally found courage -- behind the headlines -- to crack down.
In closed door sessions with the mayor and council pressed the fire chiefs to come up with some means of controlling who goes out on a fire and determining if those fire fighters were sober or not. Even after the chiefs established a policy, some firefighters refused to give in easily, and the North End fire house -- with its history of rebellion -- led a small revolution with a very loud party on the very night the fire chiefs announced their new policy.
Casual drinking would be banned. While fire houses could still be rented out to private parties, all parties, private or part of a firehouse function, would require a permit, and firefighters who participated, would not be able to respond to a fire call if one came after they had started drinking.
Two fire houses flated refused to honor the fire chief's request, and held secret meetings in an attempt to seal news leaks. They came up with schemes to replace their own chief, kick out John Reilly, Anthony Iacono, even the DPW chief, Mike Gonnelli. They also apparently consulted an attorney -- with the likely idea of sueing me for slander for publishing story after story. The news was not good. Each story was too based on fact for them to get their day in court.
Then, they sought to get around the regulation that banned drinking in the fire houses and proposed to rent the back rooms in each fire house, thereby taking it out from under the "town owned" option that made drinking their illegal.
I printed this plan, along with state regulations that said each fire fighter had to be tested after any injury, taking note that refusal to test would lose all medical benefits as would a positive test for alchol or drug use. If a fire fighter died on the job and tested positive, his family would recieve no benefits either. The town also moved to accept federal guidelines which required testing in order to become a fire fighter and other testing later if there is a question about sobriety.
Firefighters were appalled, especially the gang from the North End firehouse. Messages reached me suggesting I would not be a welcome guest, though other people suggested a darker fates if I wandered there.
As angry as they were and as much as they wanted to make me out to be an out of towner -- a common response in small towns like Secaucus to anyone who disgrees with their traditional habits -- I had a long personal history with the department, and the department had a history of similar conflicts -- even among one of their own.