Fire chief: ‘I just want to be left alone because we’re willing to do it for nothing’

A lengthy negotiation process has the fire company worried for its future and its relationship with the township committee.

Tabernalce Fire Company members Chief Andy Cunard; President Cheryl Smith; Secretary and Treasurer Melissa Masi; Deputy Chief Dave Smith; Volunteer and Trustee Aubrey Lichty; Chief Operator Stuart Rueben; Cpt. Robert Mitchell and Lt. John Horn among others worried over the company’s future after learning of rumors and no contract settlement in sight (Krystal Nurse/The Sun).

Volunteer members of the Tabernacle Fire Company No. 1 are concerned about its future  as contract negotiations with the township committee continue.

Chief Andy Cunard said a motion was made at a Sept. 9 committee meeting to open the company’s contract and put both sides on 90-day notice. That notice means the fire company and the township have 90 days to agree on a new contract before expiration of the current one, agreed to in November 2015.

The motion was made by then-Mayor Joe Barton, but it did not reach a vote because former Committeeman Stephen Lee convinced the committee and other officials to consult with the fire company’s administrative staff on the contract prior to instituting the notice.

I went to the next meeting and said, ‘You guys are going to invoke the 90-day notice, without calling me or any of us?'” Cunard recalled. “‘If you have a problem with the contract, how about you start with a phone call?’”

Minutes of both the Sept. 9 and Sept. 23 committee meetings are available on the township’s website at TownshipOfTabernacle-NJ.gov.

A subcommittee for contract negotiations was formed with Committeeman Samuel Moore and now-Mayor Kim Brown, Cunard and Cheryl Smith, president of the fire company. Both Cunard and Smith said no formal meeting was held on the contract itself, but subcommittee negotiations revealed questions surrounding what the township seeks to change. The company declined further changes.

We asked them what they wanted to see, and they offered us nothing,” Cunard explained. “There have been some issues that delayed some of our meetings. Everyone has personal things; we’re volunteers, they get a small stipend.

“We all have lives and sometimes the schedules don’t work out.”

Moore declined to comment on Jan. 27, citing an illness that caused strain on his voice. Mayor Brown said the township declines to talk about “anything that has to do with the fire company.”

The perceived lack of communication from the township committee resulted in rumors that the company was being dismantled, members allege, a situation fueled by tense, public negotiations similar to those with the Tabernacle Rescue Squad. The latter reached an agreement with the township. 

Negotiations had focused on the squad adhering to a facility use ordinance, which it did in tentative yearly agreements leading up to a February 2019 contract. Rescue squad negotiations started in 2016 to reach the current agreement, which can be viewed online, or by viewing The Sun’s coverage of the contract from Feb. 18 of that year.

Even without current negotiations — and in spite of rumors — Cunard said volunteers  continue to put in hours and answer calls.

I had 42 training drills last year; that’s not counting the individual training they do,” Cunard stressed. “There are holiday weekends where we don’t get training in, but throughout the year, it’s 42. There are only 10 weeks out of the year where we didn’t get to do training.

Twelve new volunteers have joined the company since November; 100 percent of the company’s 300-plus yearly calls are answered, according to Cunard. Response times to emergencies within the township average six minutes.

No volunteers resulted from a FEMA grant awarded in October as the agency’s systems for grant payouts has been down, according to Cunard. He expects it will be up and running within three weeks.

Statistics aside, the company also has received positive reviews from residents and other fire companies in Burlington County to which No. 1 provides mutual aid. But Tabernacle members say they’re confused about allegations that the township is drawing out negotiations and trying to do away with the current company.

Brown responded that the township committee doesn’t “handle or deal with rumors” and is  concerned only with facts. She added no one outside of negotiations has been spoken to.

Anybody that’s offering any rumors is nothing but rumors,” she emphasized. “It’s … not true. There’s no one that knows where we’re going or what we’re doing.

“Whatever they hear, if they want to believe the rumors, it’s up to them.

Talks have taken an emotional toll on members concerned about their fates. In a lengthy Facebook post, Cunard said he and his volunteers suit up, travel and arrive at a fire knowing they and their rescuees face grave danger.

“My aunt said, ‘When people attack the things I care about, you better watch out,’” Cunard said, fighting tears. “That’s how I feel right now — ready to explode on somebody because they’re attacking things I care about and people I care about. I don’t take it lightly. If I did, I’d quit two, or five years ago.

“I wouldn’t be doing it since 1984.”

Cheryl Smith and her husband, Depute Fire Chief Dave Smith, said they’ve invited the township committee to the firehouse to see what the volunteers do on a daily basis and learn more about the company. They emphasized that information shared between the committee and fire company could help both sides respond to a resident’s complaint or questions.

Despite the rift, Cunard said company members will continue to encourage volunteering among their neighbors. Promotional items will soon be circulated to recruit via social media, online videos and other means.

I should be interacting with the administrator to get purchase orders needed — otherwise, leave me alone and let me squirt my water on the fire,” the chief insisted. “I just want to be left alone, because we’re willing to do it for nothing.”