The town of Secaucus has suspended the previously highly touted river police patrols as of July, causing a flurry of complaints about misbehavior on the Hackensack River.
Town officials said that they could not use fire department volunteers to work the boat because they wanted a certain level of pay, but fire officials said there was a host of small reasons why they were reluctant to maintain the partnership between the police and fire departments in manning the boat.
Mayor Dennis Elwell said the town of Secaucus suspended river patrol operations when firefighters, who operate the boat used for the patrols, said they wanted the same pay as their police counterparts. Firefighters and police officers did the patrols together. The police, however, were on their regular hours and being paid their regular salaries or overtime, while fire department personnel received a stipend of $50 for five hours of work.
"The fire department told us they wanted parity in pay, the same as the police officers," said Elwell, responding to questions about the matter during a telephone interview. "That's totally impossible. If we were to do that, then they could aptly ask us to pay them for attending fires."
Town Administrator Anthony Iacono said the river patrol has been suspended indefinitely.
"We're trying to find alternatives," he said.
Police salaries currently cost the town between $10,000 and $15,000 a season for hours on the boat, Iacono said.
It's more than just the money
Fire Chief Robert Cordes, however, said the issue was not pay.
"Of course our men would like more money," he said. "But that's not the reason we can't do this anymore. We are having trouble getting guys to do it."
Cordes said police officers work the river patrol as part of their regular duties. They get assigned to the patrol as part of their regular shift.
"The police officers get on the boat for three hours and then go," Cordes said. "Our guys have to spend an hour getting the boat ready, then do the shift, and then spend another hour after the shift cleaning up the boat."
During the first year of operations, firefighters found their wives and girlfriends complaining about the five hours missing from each weekend, discouraging many of the firefighters from taking on the duty, other fire fighters said.
Under the arrangement started during the summer of 2000, the Secaucus police and Secaucus fire departments started regular patrols after the state police decided to suspend their own operations on the Hackensack River.
Resources devoted to on-water enforcement have become severely stressed in recent years, despite an increase in use on the river and an increase in watercraft-related accidents.
The state police stopped patrolling the river, according to Police Chief Dennis Corcoran, when they combined two previous jurisdictions covering an area that goes from Sandy Hook to Lake Hopatcong. That meant that local waters would no longer be patrolled, unless the local police did it. This made Secaucus one of a handful of communities in the state with its own active marine division.
Councilman John Reilly at the time said this had become necessary because of the increased use of the river for water recreation. Use of the river in Secaucus was particularly enhanced by Hudson County Boat launch installed at Laurel Hill Park in 1996.
Previously, patrols by the state police were infrequent, and complaints often fell onto the shoulders of the local police anyway. The report would come into the local police station, and the dispatcher would either call the state police - which took time - or the chief would request the fireboat to go out to answer the call.
Cordes, however, said the fire department got involved in the program last year as a temporary arrangement.
"We were under the impression that we would provide the boat for the first year and that the police department would get their own boat this year," Cordes said. "Then two weeks before Memorial Day we found out we were supposed to supply the boat again."
Cordes said no one asked the staff at Rescue1/Engine2, which operates the fireboat, if the firefighters had the time to spend all summer out on the boat every weekend.
"They were spending four to five hours each day fueling the boat cleaning, securing it when the weather got bad," Cordes said. "Last year there were only eight firefighters that were going out on the boat. This year they just did not want to do it."
Firefighters also said the patrols were giving the department a bad name - especially when boaters see the fire department arriving and a police officer stepping off to give a ticket.
"It gives the fire department a bad reputation," Cordes said. "When we're supposed to be helping people, we seem to be giving people tickets."
Cordes also said the fireboat has taken a beating.
"We were asked to keep the boat in the water," Cordes said. "Before, we kept the boat in the fire house."
The daily tides shoving the boat against the dock when not in use as well as a variety of weather conditions put much more wear on the boat that usual. While Cordes said the town did pay for repairs and for repainting, the boat still suffered, and created more work for firefighters required maintaining the boat.
"We have nothing against the police department," Cordes said. "And we're more than willing to help out in case of an emergency. But firefighters already spend a lot of time away from their wives and girlfriends for training. Five hours a weekend and other duties maintaining the boat are just too much."
Coast Guard Auxiliary helping out
Before being suspended in July, the patrol covered an area of river from Tony's Old Mill site at the mouth of Mill Creek in the north to the St. Paul's Avenue Pumping station on Penhorn Creek in the south.
Iacono said the police have been instructed to pass along river-related calls to the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Sheehan and Elwell said the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, which operates out of Secaucus, has increased it patrols of the river in order the help stranded boaters.
"We've had conversations with the Coast Guard Auxiliary," Elwell said. "They have expanded their operations - not up to the level of our patrols, but they are helping people."
The Coast Auxiliary conducts operations along the Hackensack and Passaic rivers and part of the Hudson River from Memorial Day to Labor Day. They have about several dozen members operating nearly a dozen private boats, equipped with towlines and other rescue equipment.
Several boaters contacted said the Coast Guard Auxiliary, however, does not deter the open violations of law currently ongoing on the river.
Since the suspension of the police patrol, several boaters have complained that violations of speed and basic water etiquette have increased.
"People are speeding up and down the river," said one boater, a resident of Secaucus, who wished not to be named. "People are drinking heavily and no one seems to stop them. People are getting stranded out there and the patrol has not been around to help them."
Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan, who runs tours on the river, said he has helped numerous boaters, and acknowledged the increase in apparent violations.
In order to get around using the fireboat for the patrols, the town has asked the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission to give the town a boat.
"This way we can get around the issue of just who owns the fireboat," said Elwell. "If the police have a boat of their own, we don't have to bother with the fireboat at all."
Elwell said he had hoped to get the boat for the 2001 summer season, but said that this was not likely.