Tabernacle Fire Company #1 Terminated. Members Put On Probation

Effective January 30, 2021, Tabernacle terminated its contract with Tabernacle Fire Company #1 (TFC#1), an independent volunteer fire company.

As of February 1, 2021, the newly formed Tabernacle Fire Company, will occupy the fire station and respond to calls. The Tabernacle Fire Company is not independent; it’s part of Tabernacle Township’s Department of Public Safety.

This termination of the TFC#1 was not the first time the committee tried to get rid of TFC#1. On September 9, 2019, Committee members Brown, Moore and Barton attempted to send a termination notice to the TFC#1 to force it to renegotiate its contract. At first, they didn’t say what they wanted to renegotiate. But, under pressure from former committeemen Lee and Yates, Committeeman Moore later explained that there were unspecified training problems.

The real problem was that the committee had left out the requirement that the TFC#1 had to get training from the Tabernacle Rescue Squad, and the TRS was upset about it.

After discussion about how extreme it would be for the township to send a termination notice to its volunteer fire fighters, the plan was dropped.

Instead of sending the notice the committee formed a subcommittee to look into fire services. Committee members Brown and Moore were appointed to this Public Safety Subcommittee. They initiated the 2021 termination of the TFC#1.

The 2021 termination of the TFC#1 and creation of the township fire company are the latest of four major changes that the committee has made to fire services over the last seven years. All of these were supposedly done to improve the bad relationship between fire and TRS. Here’s the list:

December 2014: Elimination of the Tabernacle Fire District
December 2014: Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company not rehired
December 2014: Hiring of the Tabernacle Fire Company #1

June 2018: Hiring of a Pubic Safety Director
December 2018: Resignation of Pubic Safety Director

September 2019: motion to terminate TFC#1 for bad training
September 2019: Creation of subcommittee to look into fire services

January 2021 Actual termination of TFC#1
October 2021 Creation of township’s Tabernacle Fire Company

As this list shows, the township always viewed the fire company as the reason for the bad relationship. No demands or changes were ever placed on the TRS except for the short-lived effort to have both TRS and the fire company serve under an independent public safety director. The public safety director resigned after six months because TRS refused to cooperate and the committee continued to let TRS call all of the shots.

On October 13, 2020, when the committee announced its latest plan to terminate TFC#1 and replace it with a township-owned fire company, residents had reason to question if this was a well thought-out policy or just more political nonsense.

The secretive and hasty manner in which the committee proceeded strongly suggested that this was not a well thought out policy but was highly political. Here’s why:

The subcommittee of Mayor Brown and Committeeman Moore, who recommended the termination plan, operated in secrecy throughout 2020. They didn’t operate in public. Nor did they issue any written reports on their progress, their findings, key questions, other alternatives or recommendations.

Mr. Moore’s oral report of the subcommittee emphasized how thorough they were, but it didn’t explain the problems with the existing fire services organization or the benefits of establishing a township fire company. Not surprisingly, the report didn’t mention the TRS training problem that was so important to the committee just a year earlier.

Mr. Moore’s report wasn’t listed on the agenda, although he and Mayor Brown obviously knew that Mr. Moore would issue it.

The ordinance to establish the new fire company was rushed through so fast that it wasn’t put on the agenda for first reading. It was hammered out the same night the oral report was given and then introduced by title. This enabled the committee to rush through the ordinance without the public seeing what the ordinance actually said.

The ordinance was passed at second reading without much discussion at the October 26, 2020 township meeting. With that, the committee was off to the races to implement it as quickly as possible.

Applications for fire chief were quickly advertised for, received and reviewed. Supposedly a panel was set up to interview and select the chief. However, when I requested the record of the members of the panel, former Clerk Barber said that no such record existed.

At the December 14, 2020 meeting, Committeeman Sunbury (who replaced Kim Brown on the subcommittee), read a report into the record recommending that Keith Zane be appointed Fire Chief. When I requested a copy of the report, former Clerk Barber said that no such report existed.

The recommendation of Keith Zane emphasized that he was selected to “heal the old wounds” within emergency services. This is one of the same reasons given for all of the other major changes over the last seven years. There were also testimonials to his community involvement with boy scouts, his church and Tabernacle Rescue Squad.

In the committee’s rush to reorganize fire services (what was the urgency for this anyway?), the committee never discussed transition details, especially the transition from TFC#1 to the new fire company. Committeeman Barton was the only member who raised the issue. He was totally ignored. It just wasn’t a concern. The transition was never a subject on the agenda. It was never a subject of a report. The subject was also brought up by TFC#1 member Cheryl Smith during public comment.

At the January 25, 2021 meeting, when the committee formally recognized the official roster of the new Tabernacle Fire Company, it became clear that committee was not trying to “heal the wounds,” it wanted to exclude certain people from the new township fire company.

The principle person excluded was Dave Smith, former Chief of TFC#1. His name wasn’t on the the list of the new fire company members. There are also other unnamed TFC#1 members who’ve applied to the new fire company who haven’t been accepted as permanent members and remain on probation.

According to a pubic comment, Chief Smith applied immediately to join the new township fire company. But, as the official roster now shows, he wasn’t accepted as a permanent member. He remains a probationary member.

Smith wasn’t excluded because he applied late. He applied early. Other members of the TFC#1, who applied after him, were made permanent members.

Smith wasn’t excluded because he was unqualified. As a longtime, active fire fighter and former chief, he has more experience and greater qualifications than the newly appointed chief, Keith Zane.

Curiously, the committee didn’t make fire fighting experience a qualification for membership in the new fire company. It specified only three requirements: a candidate must be above the age of 18; must pass a physical examination and must submit to a background check.

We understand that no physical exams or background checks were given before the official roster was set. So, really, the only requirement of a new member was that he or she be above the age of 18. Chief Smith looks older than 18.

Smith’s exclusion from the official roster (as well as the other excluded TFC#1 members) was unexplained and seems inexplicable.

As the pubic comment rolled out, the committee members didn’t express any concern that Chief Smith was excluded or that a mistake might have been made. They weren’t interested in looking into the matter either.

Instead, committee members hid behind Chief Zane. Ms. Brown and Mr. Sunbury said that Chief Zane created the official roster and the committee was just accepting his list. They emphasized that they had nothing to do with the application process. They were just a rubber stamp; powerless followers of Chief Zane.

That’s nonsense. The committee is in charge. They’re the ones who said they figured it all out in the secret subcommittee. It’s their job is to ensure that fair, reasonable and thorough procedures are in place for the new chief to follow.

In fact, the committee is directly involved. They’re the one’s who established the policies, standards and procedures, scant as they are, for staffing the new fire company. Ordinance 2020-4 says. “All appointments are subject to the approval of the Township Committee. Members of the Fire Department are subject to the Township of Tabernacle Personnel Polices and Procedures.”

Because Tabernacle was depending on TFC#1 members to fight fires during the transition to the new fire company and afterwards, it would have been prudent for the committee to ensure that all existing TFC#1 members of good standing who applied would immediately and automatically get full membership in the new fire company, subject to passing the physical and a background check.

It would also have been the right thing for the committee to do to “heal the wounds.” After all of its efforts to reorganize fire services, while leaving the TRS alone, this was the moment for a clean start. This was the opportunity for the committee to show that it could do right by the TFC#1 members, even if it thought that terminating the TFC#1 was in Tabernacle’s best interest.

Whether because of its utter carelessness in formulating policy or because of its continued petty political reasons, the committee again didn’t do right for its fire fighters.

The committee placed all TFC#1 members into a limbo zone of probation. Ordinance 2020-4, which the committee rammed through, says that all members of TFC#1 “shall automatically be probationary members of the new Township Fire Department and shall have ninety days to apply for permanent membership…after the appointment of a Chief.” [Chief Zane was appointed on December 14, 2020].

Ordinarily, probation is a period of time during which a person is monitored or observed to see if they’re capable and responsible. TFC#1 fire fighters have already proven themselves to be capable and responsible. Keeping TFC#1 members on probation doesn’t make any sense. No fire fighters from outside of TFC#1 are probationary.

While the ordinance makes all TFC#1 members probationary, it doesn’t give any guidance about what probation means.

What are the differences between a full member and a probationary member? Can a probationary member do the same work as a full member? Can they do the same jobs they did when they were members of TFC#1?

Does a probationary member earn LOSAP benefits as full members do and as TFC#1 members did before their contract was terminated?

How long can a person languish as a probationary member? Does a person have any recourse if no action is taken on their application or if their application is denied?

Is there any legitimate reason to deny full membership to a TFC#1 member in good standing who’s over the age of 18 and applies for membership? This, of course, is subject to a physical examination and a background check?

Because the township’s policy allows for exclusion without explanation and without limitation, it has big implications for the $254,000 retention and recruitment grant that the TFC#1, under Chief Smith, got from FEMA in 2019. (Incidentally, the TFC#1 announced the grant around the same day that the committee announced that it wanted to terminate the TFC#1 for bad training.)

FEMA would have good reason to transfer the grant to Tabernacle if all TFC#1 members in good standing were merged into the new fire company. Merger is equivalent to retention, which is a primary purpose of the grant. But by excluding Chief Smith and other TFC#1 members that want to join the new company Tabernacle violates retention. Exclusion could cause forfeiture of the grant.

How can the new fire company be a successful fresh start when its first acts are to arbitrarily pick some volunteers and exclude others. The committee should revise its thoughtless and corrosive policy.

Also, it continues to be tiresome to watch the committee work secretively and produce policies that are rushed, unexamined, half-baked and politically motivated.