N.J. city’s new fire director made a small uniform change. It’s causing big complaints

The old uniform patch shows the Iron Fireman, a statue that has stood in Trenton for over 100 years and has been a gathering place for ceremonies and memorials


Kevin Shea
nj.com

On their left sleeves, Trenton firefighters have long worn a uniform patch they say is unlike other departments for its depiction of the Iron Fireman, a statue honoring their profession that has stood in the city for over 100 years.

The Iron Fireman, clutching a rescued child, is where the department, pre-pandemic, held annual ceremonies. More importantly, it’s where the names of firefighters who died in the line of duty are listed.

The Iron Fireman is a huge part Trenton firefighting, members say.

That’s why the decision by the department’s new civilian director, Kenneth Douglas, to change the patch’s design - and lose the Iron Fireman - has been met with anger and an online petition to keep the old design.

Firefighters say they were not part of the decision and should have been, and the new design, which newly sworn firefighters started wearing Thursday, tosses away countless years of tradition. The new patch can be seen here, on the MidJersey.News website.

Douglas said Friday the design change was not meant to history, but is part of larger, marketing and design changes that also include uniforms, “to push the department forward.”

“I totally respect that patch,” Douglas said of the Iron Fireman design. “We’re not taking away the history of the department.”

The director said others in the department were aware of the new design, including union members, and he makes decisions with inclusion. Veteran firefighters can still wear the Iron Fireman patch, but he said the new patch will be on new uniforms in the future.

The department’s two union presidents, Wayne Wolk and Andres Perez, balk at Douglas’ opinion that unions were part of the decision. Talking to a few union firefighters is different from clearing it with the union leadership – which was not done, they say.

Moreover, the unions believe Douglas is just unaware of the importance of the Iron Fireman. If Douglas wants to update the patch, fine, but it has to feature the Iron Fireman symbol, they and other firefighters said.

“I think it was made in haste and without the full membership’s input,” Wolk said. “That patch means a lot to a lot of firefighters.”

Douglas, who previously served in the Newark and Orange departments, was named director in August.

“A lot of our members are very upset,” Perez said. He said he’s only talked with two or three firefighters who like the new patch. The department has 240 members.

Perez and other firefighters say the the new patch design looks like, “every other department.”

“We’re not New York, we’re not Newark and we’re not Orange,” Perez said. “We’re Trenton.”

Both Wolk and Perez, as well as Douglas, say they’d rather be talking about repairing old firehouses, buying new gear and other issues critical to saving lives and property.

However, the union presidents say the patch change is emblematic of just that: that Douglas should be focusing on those bigger issues, with the union, and not changing patches in a department for which he’s served less than six months.

The patch’s seriousness to firefighters is reflected online, where many have stepped from behind their usual stance of not publicly discussing department matters, which they typically refer to union officials.

Firefighter Kevin Soto started the petition, on change.org, writing: “We as the members of this department understand the risk and sacrifice we make on a continuous basis missing nights, weekends and holidays with our family. If there were to be a change to our patch and uniform it should be based on a majority vote of all members.”

The petition had more than 1,000 signatures Friday.

Soto posted it on Facebook, changed his profile picture to the Iron Fireman patch, and added: “I know this may sound a little crazy because there is bigger issues that we should be arguing about but to us changing something so iconic and historic in this city is a big deal...we had members die wearing this patch so it’s a slap in the face to all of us, not only us but to our families especially families of those fallen members and those who retired with that patch on.”

On the petition, firefighter Chris Laird wrote: “Many men whose shoes I will never be able to fill have lived and died under this patch and it has been my dream as a child to have the honor to wear that same patch and keep the highest level of service and protection just as they did before.”

“It would be disheartening to see something unique and historic to the department replaced with something so generic,” wrote firefighter Marissa Bergen.

The new patch also led firefighter Natasha Rivera to make a public statement. She is the daughter of Manuel “Manny” Rivera, who died in the line of duty in 2009 during a ladder rescue and whose name is among those etched on the side of Iron Fireman statue.

The patch also symbolizes honor, like her father’s, Rivera said.

“I wear it every day with much pride and if it’s changed it wouldn’t feel as though I’m honoring him anymore,” she wrote.

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