TUCKERTON – Local residents shouldn’t expect the Tuckerton Borough Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 to show up as first responders on emergency scenes – at least for now.
Borough officials indefinitely suspended the volunteer fire company as its designated first responder earlier this month. Authorities cited concerns about the health, safety, and welfare of residents, as well as active members of the fire company itself.
Fire equipment owned by the Borough has also been removed from the local fire station.
The Ocean County Fire Coordinator has stepped in to ensure that township residents do not experience a lapse in fire protection services. West Tuckerton and Parkertown Fire Departments are assigned as primary first responders for fire calls in the community that serves as home to approximately 3,500 residents.
“The mayor and council will not allow for residents of the Borough to feel unsafe,” said Mayor Susan Marshall. “We will take action when it is not.”
Attachments to the resolution suspending the fire company document the reasons for the measure. At the end of last year, the New Jersey Department of Health conducted PEOSH (Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health) inspections in response to complaints the department was not in compliance with fit testing.
Fit testing is a mandatory requirement that stipulates firefighters must be evaluated at least once a year to ensure their use of respirators meets compliance standards. The Tuckerton Fire Company submitted Fit Test records for three years, with the last dated May 7, 2020.
According to the PEOSH report, the fire company has not produced updated fit testing records since 2020. The report points out that the fire company was previously cited for related violations and ultimately abated them.
“The Fire Chief stated they had difficulty getting the fit testing scheduled due to COVID-19 hardships of the private company used to conduct the fit testing,” wrote Thomas Wilson, Assistant Chief, Office of Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health. “However, the Chief was unable to provide any documentation of those requests.”
Wilson said Tuckerton Fire Chief Dale Eggers admitted he did not follow up with additional providers for fit testing for the time period the department was out of compliance. After the initiation of the PEOSH inspection, members of the Tuckerton Fire Department were fit tested on December 14 and December 28, 2021. This was done to abate the citation given for failure to comply with the standard.
On May 18, 2022, the Tuckerton Fire Department’s Facebook page advised followers that the state notified them that they faced a $24,5000 fine as a “Repeat Penalty” for firefighters not being annually fit tested.
“We were in contact with a representative at Labor that same day, and they recommended we file an appeal due to the circumstances – which will be done through the Borough Administration,” wrote fire officials. “We have supplied them with a timeline showing our attempt to schedule the fit testing last year to indicate we made a good faith effort to obtain the required testing.”
The Facebook post assured readers that no one was in danger at any time. It suggests that fit testing is not the ultimate safety evaluation and the fact that the department’s Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus is maintained and flow tested acts as a protective measure.
In addition to the fit testing issue, the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) raised other concerns memorialized in communication sent to Tuckerton Borough Administrator Jenny Gleghorn.
“In answer to the question posed as to whether the residents of Tuckerton are adequately protected by their current Volunteer Fire Company operations,” wrote Donald Nelson, on behalf of the DCA. “The answer is a resounding NO.”
Nelson said that of the twelve active firefighters, including the Chief, each had at least one certification issue. New Jersey requires firefighters to achieve certifications in particular areas in order to hold the title.
According to the DCA report, five of the 12 Tuckerton Fire Department members do not have valid Firefighter I certifications. This certification covers basic fire service qualifications.
Other deficiencies noted within the department included the failure of nine of the 12 members to possess Incident Command Systems training certificates. One of the Fire Company line officers was not certified to take on the duties required for acting Incident Commander.
“Chief Eggert was advised verbally of each of these deficiencies,” wrote Nelson. “Chief Eggert had over two calendar months to cure the deficiencies of the firefighters under his charge. For whatever the reason, he squandered the opportunity to make necessary corrections in a timely fashion and better position your fire department for a road toward recovery.”
The DCA report further states that if the Insurance Service Organization (ISO) were to test the Tuckerton Volunteer Fire Company concerning their ability to provide fire protection, they would fail miserably. Staffing is another issue when it comes to response time, as are problems with establishing and maintaining adequate flow of water.
“No matter the measure, the current and immediate past leadership of the Tuckerton Volunteer Fire Company is an abysmal failure,” Nelson wrote. “They have demonstrated noncompliance to basic fire safety regulations through Public Employee Occupational Safety and Health regulations, the Uniform Fire Code, the Uniform Construction Code, and in this matter – fire training regulations and operational aspects regulated under the Uniform Fire Safety and Emergency Deployment Acts.”
As the country experiences a decline in volunteerism as a whole, Nelson said one of problems Tuckerton’s fire company has encountered appears to be a problem with those at the helm. A number of firefighters have declined to work for Tuckerton as long as Lee Eggert, Sr. and his sons Lee Jr. and Dale run the department.
Ann Marie Sweeney moved from Lambertville to Tuckerton four years ago. For the last eight months, she has implored the governing body to intervene in issues related to the fire department.
Sweeney said she learned of the problems within the fire company from a few retired and released firefighters who have been sounding the alarm regarding mismanagement of the department for at least the last two years. She said that literally every aspect of the fire department is deficient and is terribly scary.
“It seems these people are just going to be left there (the Eggerts),” said Sweeney at a May Borough Council meeting. “None of these people (other firefighters) will come back because of the bullying they received from the Eggerts…You have good people waiting in the wings who are willing to fight these fires, and they’re not coming because they are bullied beyond recognition by these people.”
Although Chief Dale Eggert was unavailable for comment, his father Lee Eggert, Sr. agreed to speak on his personal behalf. Lee, Sr. is both a former Tuckerton Borough mayor and fire chief. He denied that he or his sons have harassed or bullied anyone.
It’s not the first time the Eggerts have come under fire for their volunteer emergency services work. Lee, Sr. joined the Tuckerton Fire Department in 1973. In a 1996 court opinion entitled Eggert v. Tuckerton Volunteer Fire Co. No. 1, 938 F. Supp. 1230 (D.N.J. 1996), Lee claimed that he was banned from responding to fires after he wrote a letter to the editor criticizing the department.
Lee said the department has had other issues such as the time there was a chief and president using the fire company’s credit card for personal use. He also pointed out that some people might not have appreciated his insistence on background checks when Lee discovered that at least one of the members was a convicted felon.
In 2018, the Borough paid out a $65,000 settlement to a female volunteer firefighter. Lee says the woman was upset when his son ended his romantic relationship with the volunteer.
“The town is in jeopardy by putting us out of service,” said Lee. “Someone is around here all day long and we can always get at least a few people to the call.
“Even though we may have small crews at times, our response time getting a truck out the door is almost always quicker than our neighboring department,” he said. “Couple that with the longer distance to travel by out of town companies, plus less manpower because we’re not there, our familiarity with our town and the water supply issues, it will be a big problem sooner or later.”