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N.J. mayor announces changes in FD, public safety leadership

Newark Ras J. Baraka announced the selection of the new fire chief and assistant public safety director


City of Newark

By Steve Strunsky

NEWARK, N.J. — Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka announced a shakeup of the city’s fire department’s leadership on Tuesday, moving its top uniformed official into a newly created civilian job as assistant public safety director and replacing him as fire chief.

The outgoing chief, Rufus Jackson, a 28-year veteran of the NFD, was named assistant director of the Newark Department of Public Safety, which includes the police and fire divisions and the office of emergency management.

Del Ortiz, a 22-year veteran of Newark’s fire division, was appointed to replace Jackson.

Ortiz had served as a battalion chief, the division’s second-highest uniformed position after fire chief. In a statement on Tuesday, Baraka called both promotions “momentous.”

“Our expectations for both these men are nothing less than the outstanding performance they exhibit every day and their unwavering support of fellow public safety professionals,” the mayor said.

Director Fritz Fragé, a former New Jersey State Police colonel, heads the public safety department. He replaced Brian O’Hara in August 2022 after O’Hara was moved to a deputy mayor’s post. A month later, O’Hara left the city for a job as the Minneapolis police chief.

Fragé said in a statement that Jackson “brings to the role an extensive depth of professionalism and integrity, along with substantial proficiency in leadership and organizational foresight.”

Jackson will replace Raul Malave as the public safety department’s second-ranking official after Malave, a veteran Newark firefighter, retired in February as deputy director.

The leadership changes come less than three months after the city’s fire division came under scrutiny following a July 5 blaze aboard a cargo ship at Port Newark that resulted in the death of veteran firefighters Augusto “Augie” Acabou, 45, and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr., 49. The U.S. Coast Guard is leading a wide-ranging, inter-agency investigation of the fire.

[RELATED: N.J. port firefighting, FD training questioned in deadly ship fire]

Crystal Rosa, the city’s communications director, said the leadership changes were unrelated to the fire at the port.

“Malave retired, and Jackson is the best fit moving forward,” she said in an email.

Tuesday’s announcement said Jackson would “work closely with Fragé, new Fire Chief Ortiz, and the department’s executive staff to provide guidance and executive oversight” to the police and fire divisions and the emergency management office.

Anthony Tarantino, president of the Newark Fire Officers Association, representing Newark’s 140 fire captains, battalion chiefs and deputy chiefs, welcomed both moves on Tuesday.

Tarantino said Jackson’s administrative experience as the fire department’s chief of staff before its 2016 merger with the police to form the Public Safety Department would help him in his new role. He praised Ortiz as a skilled operations manager, respected among supervisors and rank-and-file firefighters and officers.

“He’s well respected by the men. His knowledge is second to none,” Tarantino said. “He is definitely the right person for this job. Personally, I’m very happy for him and happy for the department.”

Michael Giunta, president of the rank-and-file Newark Firefighters Union, likewise praised Ortiz as the incoming chief and wished Jackson luck in his new civilian job. Giunta also commended Baraka for the leadership moves.

“I really think he’s making changes in a positive way,” Giunta said.

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