Chapter Twelve: In case of fire


            From the open front door of the Seventh Street firehouse, nothing at all seems amiss with the big yellow Snorkel firetruck. The quality of care shows in its polished yellow sides and shimmering chrome, like an antique car waiting to go off to a show, silver bell hanging from it front. In this bell, the doorway is reflected and the two-storied houses across the street. The gold letting brags of the truck's being part of the Secaucus Fire Department's long, proud history.

            But up close and between the cracks, age show with bits of rust here and there, around the edges of headlights and trim. For twenty year, this machine has been a part of the department's fire fighting acpability, but over the last few years, the rust has begun working from the inside out. Even the rubber hoses to the hydraulic system show their wear, worn down to their inner sleeves, waiting for a moment when they might burst at the seams.

            While this unit is not part of the town's front line defence against fire, the department relies upon it for specific duties, and its use, according to fire officials, could make the difference between life and death during a fire.

            As fire officials contemplate the purchase of a $700,000 unit to replace it, they also depate whether or not they should try to fix the old truck one more time. But to ex-caption Kenneth Tuthill, the machine's age works against repairing it, noting that most of the parts are original 1973 vintage. To repair it would mean replacing all those part, including the hydraulics. The whole system would have to be dismantled and its pipews and fittings scraped free of rust. So much of the chasis, frame and body requires work that replacing the machine seems the most economical move the fire department could make. Even after all the repairs were done, Tuthill said the department would still have a 20-year-old truck with a twenty-year-old engine and transmission.

            Some people argue the new truck isn't necessary, because of the numerous mutual aid agreements the town has with surrounding towns. Trucks that do the job the snorkel did or the new Ariel-Baker unit is designed to do can be called in from nearby firehouses just beyond the borders of Secaucus. Yet Tuthill is skeptical of such ideas.

            "I wouldn't want to have to wait for a truck from West New York if there is a train going across Secaucus Road," he said.

            Because of increased train traffic in and out of the Croxton Yard at the Southeastern corner of Secaucus, more and more trains pass across Secaucus Road, New County Road and Paterson Plank Road, leaving traffic backed up for miles on both sides.

            "Conrail doesn't care about a piece of fire equipment getting through they when have a freight crossing there," Tuthill said. "And I wouldn't want to have to wait for a vehicle from Rutherford or Lyndhurts between 7 and 9 in the morning when Route 3 gets jammed up."

            Tuthill said a large part of the issue is that of self-reliance, and pondered whether or not a neighboring town would lend a valuable piece of its equipment to Secaucus for weeks if another more necessary piece of the fire fleet goes down for repair.

            Tuthill, who has served on the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department for 30 years, said he agrees that people should be concerned about the cost of the vehicle.

            "Economically, times are hard and many businesses are failing," he said, yet noted that the yearly budget for all five Secaucus fire houses is $149,000 a year, a small percentage of what other towns with paid services are required to budget. Even if Secaucus was to spend a million dollars every two years to upgrade its fire fleet, Tuthill still believes it would be a bargain.

            "They're not spending any money on salaries, pensions and retirement funds, vacation pay, and those things add up," he said.

            While the nearly $700,000 price tag might seem like a lot, the price is not out of line with the rest of society, Tuthill argued. The Snorkel cost $109,000 in 1973 when the sticker price for mid-sized cars was slightly over $2,500. Many cars cost six times that now, and so do fire engines like the Aerial-Baker.

            Nor did Tuthill think this as the only investment the town would make in upgrading the fleet. Many of the other fire trucks were aging as well. Fire Engine #1 stationed at the Plaza fire house was built in 1963. And though it had been refibrished in 1984, its age would become a consideration in the town's future plans. The town's hook and ladder was built in 1971, with two other trucks over 13 years old as well.

            Fire trucks were only part of the problem, Tuthill said. The fire department would need to purchase smaller pieces of equipment as well: boots, pants and jacket packages each cost around $750, for the more than 90 members for the fire department. All this, he admitted, added up.

            Tuthill agreed with some of the council members who called for a five-year plan to upgrade the fire department. But he said this should have been implemented years earlier.

            "We should be in the middle of upgrading, not at the beginning," he said, also agreeing with the biggest critic of the new truck, Councilman Dennis Elwell, who said money for the fire department should be put aside from fines as a result of faulty alarm systems and repeated false alarms.

            "The problem is he never pushed the issue," Tuthill said.

            Indecision by the mayor and council also pushed up the cost of the firetruck, Tuthill said. If the governing body had acted sooner the cost would have been less.

            "We could have had the truck for $600,000," he said.

            Price aside, the reason fire officials picked the 75-foot Aerial-Baker was because it most closely resembled the operations of the Snorkel.

            "That's how satisfied we were with the Snorkel," Tuthill said. "We tried to find something every similar."

            Tuthill, Ron Kosky and Mark Zaemba sxpent two years and some of their own money looking for the vehicle, traveling to a convetion in Baltimore and then another in Wildwood. They even made a trip to New york City to study fire trucks in operation there.

            The company at the Seventh Street fire house was orignal a pump company -- and th truck now on order would prvide them with both the hose and the aerial capability. It would allow them the versitlity to begin fighting a fire on arrival rather than having to wait for a pumper to feed them a line the way a ladder company would.

            Yet as old and out of repair as the old snorkel is, Tuthill said he is reluctant to part with it, and wonders whether or not the department might find a use for it, even after the newer truck arrived.

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