Volunteer fire department ‘in shock’ over Maple Shade suspension
MAPLE SHADE — There's turmoil among residents after a Burlington County town's decision to suspend its entirely volunteer fire department for three months, citing misconduct and “overall dereliction of duties."
The Maple Shade fire department has objected to the suspension saying it creates an issue of public safety, while the township manager has said the suspension was precisely meant as a way of protecting residents.
The issue was expected to be a top priority among public comments at a regular township council meeting on Thursday evening, including whether neighboring fire departments now providing coverage during the 90 day period were being paid.
“In order to protect life and property within the community, the Township felt it necessary in coordination with County and State Officials to temporarily suspend the Department. The Township will have continuous coverage through mutual aid agreements as well as support from neighboring communities who have always responded to calls in Maple Shade,” according to township manager Susan Danson in an email response on Wednesday to New Jersey 101.5.
“By suspending operations, the township is putting all the residents of this town in danger,” Maple Shade Independent Fire Company No. 1 said in its own statement online issued Tuesday.
While saying its members continue to be "in shock," the fire department also has said that being locked out of a building that it owns was an illegal action by the township council and township manager.
Failure to communicate with the township since March, regarding “misconduct within the membership,” as well as “failure to respond to calls in a timely manner with the appropriate number of qualified staff - endangering the safety and health of all involved," were among motivating factors according to the resolution adopted unanimously by the five-member township council on Monday.
“These concerns have been brought to the attention of the Department multiple times over the past year, however there has been no responsible action taken to address the Township's concerns,” Danson also said.
“We were never advised of this until now or given a reason why,” the fire department said in its joint statement following the resolution.
The volunteer department also had said that career paid departments from neighboring towns “will not continue to do this for free as it will increase the workload on their staff and equipment and increase their operating costs.”
Danson repeated that the town is not looking to get rid of the in-town volunteers, for good.
“We are hopeful through the partnership with an outside Consultant, the Independent Fire Company will join the Township as we begin to restructure and re-build the department,” she said.
The Maple Shade Fire Department has been "100% volunteer" since its formation in 1912, now serving the Burlington County community of around 20,000 residents. The fire department responds to an average of 620 emergency calls a year, not including any EMS services, according to its website.
The town did not respond to a question on specific details about the “misconduct” referred to in the resolution.
Due to ongoing pandemic restrictions, the in-person crowd at Thursday's town council meeting was being capped at 65 people, while there also continued to be a virtual option for participation, via Zoom link.