Newark, NJ mayor and firefighters union at war after deadly ship fire
🔥 Newark firefighters union says the department has been neglected by the city
🔥 Two firefighters died during a fire onboard a cargo ship
🔥 Mayor: "Unconscionable" for union to bring up issues with staffing before funerals
NEWARK — Less than a week after hailing firefighters as heroes for rushing into a cargo ship fire, Mayor Ras Baraka was critical of union leadership for bringing attention to the department's staffing and equipment shortfalls.
Following the deaths of firefighters Augusto “Augie” Acabou and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr. while on board the Italian cargo ship Grande Costa d’Avorio at Port Newark, the union highlighted concerns about the training of firefighters for this type of ship as well as staffing levels.
Newark Firefighters Union President Capt. Michael Giunta said Tuesday during a media briefing that the department did not conduct standard annual safety audits that would have brought attention to these issues.
"We think the legacy of Auggie's and Bear's sacrifice should be a safer fire department for citizens of the city of Newark and the firefighters they served alongside of. We want to sound the alarm on the neglect that the NFD has endured under this administration," Giunta said.
The separate viewings and funerals for Acabou and Woods begin Wednesday.
Staffing levels have dropped over a quarter century
Giunta said there were around 600 active firefighters in the city when he began his career as a firefighter in 1999. There are now 400, leading to the temporary closure of neighborhood firehouses. Training is inadequate for the city's "unique hazards" and is the city's responsibility to provide, according to Giunta.
The Port Authority said during a Unified Command briefing that it depends on local departments like Newark to respond to emergency situations at its facilities.
Equipment is faulty and unsafe, according to Giunta, who cited the failure of the department's large capacity fire boat to start the day of the fire. The ship was carrying 1,200 vehicles.
"We have rigs older than firefighters driving them. Our firehouses are so old and poorly maintained that in some you are prohibited from going into the basements. Others have mold issues throughout. The bottom line is this fire department has been neglected," Giunta said.
Anthony Tarantino, president of the Newark Fire Officers Union, said that the actual response to a fire is also inadequate because of the reduced staffing.
"Staffing for firehouses should be, with the density population of this size, one fire captain and between five and six firefighters," Tarantino said.
"Misinformation" from the union
Baraka in a statement said it was “unconscionable” and “divisive” to make such statements before the Acabou and Woods have been laid to rest.
“I find accusations of intentional understaffing and insufficient training of our public safety personnel very hurtful and a personal affront to everything my administration and I stand for, I find the timing very questionable,” Baraka said in a statement.
Public Safety Director Fritz Frage said he was "disappointed" by the timing of the release of what he called "misleading information about the integrity of our fire division."
The mayor said it was "inconceivable" that he would neglect the well-being of first responders and called firefighters among the most valued members of the community.
"I'm committed to making sure they have the resources they need to do their job safely. That is why at the first notification of two firefighters missing I rushed to the scene and kept vigil until after both were found," Baraka said.
The department denied the allegation about response staffing. Firefighters were trained along with personnel from the Port Authority suppression unit by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security about "the complexities of vehicles equipped with lithium-ion batteries being transported on ships."
The Newark Fire Division said there are currently 435 active firefighters and has another 50 enrolled in the city's fire academy bring the number of new hires to 109 in 2023. A total of 29 firefighters were hired in 2022, according to the department.