N.J. EMS organizations outraged over advisory board changes

Some fire and emergency services associations believe the changes to the first responders' advisory board could politicize the group


David Levinsky
Burlington County Times, Willingboro, N.J.

MOUNT HOLLY — The Burlington County Board of Freeholders began reorganizing a first responders' advisory board Wednesday over objections from some fire and emergency services associations who fear the changes could politicize the group.

The freeholder board's four Democrats voted to adopt a resolution changing the representatives of the county Emergency Services Advisory Board, which traditionally has provided input and feedback to county officials about emergency response and public safety matters, including communications, equipment, training and planning.

The nine-member board previously was made up of three representatives from the First Aid Council, two representatives from the Burlington County Fire Chiefs Association, and one representative each from the Burlington County Firefighters Association, county Fire Marshals Association and county Fire Police Association, plus a ninth member representing the county's four career firefighter unions.

The resolution approved by the freeholders Wednesday amended the advisory board's makeup so that it consists of three members from the fire service, three from the emergency medical service and three from police, plus the county Public Safety Director and another representative from the county Department of Public Safety.

The freeholders said the police representatives were added to make the board "more inclusive of all public safety disciplines" and that they wanted to have equal representation.

"I know when there's a house on fire we are calling our bravest. I know when there's a health emergency we are calling on our EMS and EMTs. If there's a law and order situation we are calling on our finest," Freeholder Balvir Singh, who serves the freeholders' deputy director and liaison for emergency services, said during the meeting.

"They're all equally important to us," he added.

But the reorganization became controversial, as members of the prior advisory board, and the emergency services groups they represent, claimed they never were consulted about the proposed changes, and that they were denied a copy of the resolution before the vote.

"The Emergency Services Advisory Board is an advisory board for you and you all failed to engage them," said Cinnaminson Fire Chief William Kramer during the meeting, which drew a large crowd of fire chiefs and other first responders.

Kramer also argued that the changes in the makeup and the way advisory board members are appointed could politicize the positions because the freeholders would no longer rely on the recommendations of the associations and organizations to choose their own representatives to the advisory panel.

Under the approved resolution, the freeholder director will have the discretion to make the appointments representing the three emergency services to the board. The resolution does not specify that they must come from any specific association or union.

"You have successfully tonight alienated every emergency service organization in this county," Kramer said, adding that the advisory board was intended to allow the emergency services to speak with "one voice" rather than having fire and emergency officials from all 40 municipalities contacting the freeholders individually.

The advisory board originally was created in 1993 as a panel representing the fire services. Representatives of the county's emergency medical services were added in 2003 along with representatives from the career firefighters unions.

Freeholder Latham Tiver, who is the lone Republican remaining on the five-member freeholder board after the Democrats flipped two Republican seats last fall, abstained on the resolution to revamp the advisory board's makeup. He said maintaining the group's independence was important.

"Emergency services personnel play an important role in our county. They are trained, they are professional, and above all, they are not political," Tiver said during the meeting. "The fact that some members of the board think that on one hand it's okay to trust these individuals to save our lives but on the other hand we can not trust them to decide who should sit on the advisory board is not right."

Singh and the other freeholders reiterated that the reorganization was not political but was intended to bring police into the fold and give them equal representation.

No appointments to the new board were made Wednesday and Singh and Freeholder Director Tom Pullion said they both looked forward to receiving recommendations for appointments to the reorganized board.

Pullion said the fire chief's response was a "knee-jerk reaction" to change, and that reorganizing the board should not be viewed as a slight to the county's emergency services.

"I don't think of you any greater or less because you're on a board or commission. I accept you guys because of the guts and courageousness that you have every day to do what you do," Pullion said. "Moving forward I hope the knee-jerk reactions because something seems to be what it is or what it isn't doesn't define us."

Following the meeting, Kramer said the fire chiefs and other groups he represents have no objection to having police join the advisory board and giving them equal representation. But he said that the lack of input the freeholders sought on how to reorganize the group was alarming.

He also argued that members of the advisory board should come from the various emergency services associations in order to credibly represent them. Absent that, he said the groups would need to bring their opinions and needs directly to the freeholders.

"Every one of our groups is united and believe this was wrong. It didn't need to be done and should have been done differently," Kramer said.

Riverside Police Chief William T. Eliason, who is the president of the Burlington County Association of Police Chiefs, said he believes the advisory board plays an important role and that the police chiefs should have input.

"There should be some input from police," he said. "We're willing to participate. We think it's an important discussion."

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©2019 Burlington County Times, Willingboro, N.J.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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