N.J. FD plans newest firehouse to be focused on high-rise fires
Newark has not had a firehouse in its growing downtown high-rise area since 2007
By Steve Strunsky
NEWARK, N.J. — In a sense, the shipboard blaze that killed two firefighters at Port Newark last month was a high-rise fire, burning on the upper decks of a cargo vessel on the water.
“You could call it a floating high-rise building,” said Chief Ronald Kanterman, who teaches high-rise operations at Kean University for the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety’s certification program.
The July 5 port fire has raised questions ranging from how it started to whether the agencies involved were adequately prepared to fight such a unique and challenging inferno — answers to which may come from an ongoing investigation led by the U.S. Coast Guard.
In the meantime, Newark officials say they’re bolstering their preparedness to fight high-rise fires on shore, potentially in the apartment towers built downtown during the city’s recent development boom. That includes early-stage plans for the first downtown firehouse in nearly two decades, specially equipped and staffed to fight high-rise fires.
“The city is growing,” Mayor Ras J. Baraka said last week after a graduation ceremony for nine rookie firefighters. “Most of it in the downtown area, through skyscrapers and downtown living.
“So, obviously, we have to begin to respond to that,” he added. “You also have to be honest about putting a fire station downtown. We’ve been talking about that as well.”
Despite its largely vertical growth as a residential neighborhood, downtown Newark has not had a fire station since the city removed one on Mulberry Street to make way for the Prudential Center arena, which opened in 2007. Yet Kanterman and others say fires in the high-rise apartments going up downtown are more complex and labor-intensive than ground level ones. He called having a specialized unit for fighting high-rise fires “a great idea.”
“With a house fire, everything you need is in the street,” said Kanterman. “The engine, the ladder truck, you pull it in, you go up the stairs two or three stories, and you’re all set.”
But in a high-rise, simply getting firefighters laden with hoses and other equipment up near the fire floor is time-consuming and physically taxing. The remote nature of fires on upper floors, sometimes out of sight from the street and possibly in a separate stairwell or floor from other units, requires a high level of communication and careful coordination.
Kanterman said fighting high-rise fires also requires knowledge of the building’s firefighting infrastructure, including the standpipes to which firefighters attach their hoses and sprinklers, and the location of elevators, the HVAC and electrical systems. There are specialized tools that firefighting units train to use, including angled nozzles that can be pointed through a window to pour water onto a fire from a floor above or curtains hung down over a smashed or open window to cut off airflow that might otherwise feed a fire.
But, he stressed, “The real issue is time.”
“You can’t just go up with three or four people together,” he said. “You’ve got to go up with equipment. You have to find the fire, and once you find it, where’s it going? But the issue is time. How long is it taking you to get from the street to the 30th floor?”
David Kurasz, executive director of the New Jersey Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, a trade group, said sprinklers had been required by state law in newly built high-rises for over 30 years. He said retrofitting with sprinklers is required for some older buildings undergoing renovations or reuse, depending on the nature or extent of the changes.
He emphasized that sprinklers are no substitute for firefighters, who extinguish fires and, first and foremost, rescue any occupants.
“A fire sprinkler system is designed to keep the fire in check,” he said. “You still need the fire department to go in there.
Newark Fire Chief Rufus L. Jackson had been trying to beat the clock, advocating for a new downtown firehouse as new towers raise the downtown skyline ever higher.
“I’ve been in talks with the mayor and the business administrator for months about building a station in the downtown district and expanding the department because of the growth of the downtown district and also the high-rises,” Jackson said during last week’s press conference. “It’s important that we try to get ahead of it. And it’s important that we get downtown and begin to train and begin to do the things that we need to do to be safe and operate safely and keep the community safe.”
Notable downtown high-rises include 1 Theater Square, a 22-story apartment tower near the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, or NJPAC, completed in 2018; a 22-story building opened at 1 Rector St. a year later, and the 33-story 777 McCarter opened this spring.
In addition, there are older Newark skyscrapers, some of them office buildings from the early 20th Century recently redeveloped into apartments.
Jersey City, where explosive growth along the Hudson River preceded and exceeded Newark’s building boom, created two high-rise firefighting units last summer.
Details on Newark’s new downtown fire station haven’t been worked out, including when it will be completed and where, how much it will cost, or how it will be equipped and staffed, said Catherine Adams, a spokesperson for the Newark Department of Public Safety, which includes the fire division.
But, the City Council has discussed the need for a new downtown fire house due to the neighborhood’s growth. And Council President Lamonica McIver strongly supports it, for fires in high or low-rise housing or commercial space that’s been built, restored or endured downtown.
“This is something we’ve been talking about for quite some time,” said McIver, whose Central Ward council district includes part of downtown Newark, as does the East Ward, represented by Councilman Michael Silva. “I’m supportive of it, and I’m sure Councilman Silva is, as well.”
A new firehouse is certain to be a multi-million dollar expense. But McIver said, “We have no other choice.”
Since the port fire that took the lives of Augusto “Augie” Acabou, 45, and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr., 49, Newark’s rank-and-file and fire officers’ unions have reiterated their longstanding positions that the fire division is understaffed.
The mayor and chief acknowledged as much last week, though not to the extent the unions assert. Including the nine rookies, Baraka and Jackson said the force was 39 members short of a full contingent of 494 and that they planned to hire 50 more this year. Baraka said he didn’t blame the unions for making their voices heard after the two fatalities.
Michael Giunta, president of the Newark Firefighters Union, sounded a conciliatory note this week, saying talk of a new downtown firehouse “sounds fantastic” while noting that he had served at the Mulberry Street station as a member of Truck Company 1 and Rescue 1.
Giunta said he was scheduled to meet with the mayor on Tuesday to discuss staffing issues. He said his priority was recruiting and hiring more firefighters to improve fire service more quickly than it would take to create a new firehouse, but he supported both.
“We as a union welcome any new firehouses, new equipment, or new firefighters,” Giunta said. “You’re not going to get any pushback from me.”