The hiring freeze at North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue is over: A federal judge who blocked the agency 14 months ago from hiring new firefighters until it expanded its local residency requirement has lifted the injunction.
“[T]he public interest in keeping the NHRFR staffed has suffered,” U.S. District Court Judge Dickinson Debevoise wrote in his ruling.
The federal judge’s decision now allows the agency to hire from a list of residents of its five member towns only, said Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, the NHRFR chairman.
Officials with the NHRFR said they had to freeze hirings while fighting the civil rights suit by the NAACP that forces them to hire from a court-mandated list of African-American candidates from several counties.
Things publicly came to a head early this year when, less than 25 feet from two buildings destroyed in a four-alarm fire in North Bergen, was Engine Company 9 — temporarily put out of service.
The firefighters nonetheless ran into the burning Kennedy Boulevard building and rescued the owners’ elderly mother — and a truck from a house four blocks away got there in no time.
Officials had great hopes for the regional team when it was created more than a decade ago. North Bergen, Guttenberg, West New York, Weehawken and Union City agreed to create the organization — one of the largest in the U.S. — to serve one of the most densely populated areas in the country. The NHRFR’s coverage area is 10 square miles.
But it has been awash in the federal suit and charges by disgruntled former members.
In one case, it’s alleged, a firefighter allegedly scored so low on a promotional exam that the NHRFR created a new rank with a lower salary to keep him — then promoted him two levels within weeks before he later retired at an even higher rank. If the allegations are true, that’s pension fraud.
Others allegedly received jobs without even taking civil service exams. Many already were employed in township public safety departments — defeating the purpose of the regional approach in the first place, critics say.
Officials with the NAACP didn’t immediately say whether they plan to appeal the decision by U.S. District Court Judge Dickinson Debevoise, New Jersey’s most senior federal court judge.
Debevoise said he believed NHRFR should include residents from Essex, Union and the southern part of Hudson County. The agency appealed, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to him last month.
Soon after, Debevoise lifted the ban, saying the NAACP likely wouldn’t prevail.
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