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Bergenfield fireman passing the torch after three decades

Capt. James Kirsch has spent more than 30 years as a career firefighter and will retire as the first paid officer to hold rank in the Bergenfield Fire Department. Tariq Zehawi/NorthJersey.com

(Photo: Tariq Zehawi/NorthJersey.com)

BERGENFIELD — For Capt. James Kirsch, firefighting was always about helping others.

There was that time he came to the aid of a boy who got stuck in a pair of toy handcuffs, and, on another day, when he rescued a cat owner’s feline out of a basement sump pump.

Remember when that deer jumped in the pool? He was there for that, too.

“I always liked the challenge of solving that problem and leaving people better off,” Kirsch said in an interview at Alert Fire Co. 1.

After more than 30 years on the job, Kirsch, 53, retired Wednesday as the first career firefighter in Bergenfield’s history to hold rank.

While he fondly recalls the lighter moments, he said he also has vivid memories of more serious emergencies, not the least of which was a natural-gas explosion in December 2005 that destroyed an apartment building on Elm Street, killing three people and leaving 24 families homeless.

“I’d like to think we did our best on all of those,” Kirsch said.

Capt. James Kirsch, the first ranking career firefighter in the history of the Bergenfield Fire Department, retired on Jan. 31.

(Photo: Tariq Zehawi/NorthJersey.com)

One of a kind

If the railroad depot on Veterans Plaza hadn’t burned down in 1904, the borough’s paid fire service might never have existed.

After that fire, the borough’s first volunteer brigade, Alert Fire Co. 1, was formed. But a sustained lack of volunteers led town fathers to hire two paid firefighters in 1923, Kirsch said.

There are now four paid firefighters, and to this day, Kirsch said, the borough’s department – made up of paid and volunteer staff – is one of a kind in Bergen County because it is the only combined department without a paid chief. He said the only other combined departments in the county are in Cresskill and Ridgewood.

A lack of volunteers is still an issue, not just in Bergenfield but throughout the nation, Kirsch said.

“We see it here, we see it in the county, and we see it across the country – the lack of volunteers and inability for some fire departments to get sufficient manpower on the scene quick enough,” he said. “That’s a problem that’s not going away anytime soon.”

Captain James Kirsch was the first hired officer of the Bergenfield Fire Department and will be retiring at the end of January 2018.
Runs in the family

Kirsch, a 1982 graduate of Bergenfield High School, joined Prospect Fire Co. 1 as a volunteer that year. He was hired as a paid firefighter in 1987.

He was fire chief in 1997 and remained on the volunteer side of the department until 2013. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act now bans employees from volunteering to do a similar job without it being counted as work time.

Kirsch, who earned an annual salary of $120,700, became the department’s first ranking career firefighter in 2004 when he was made a lieutenant. He was promoted to the rank of captain eight years later.

That he holds such a distinction is appropriate, since he comes from an established family of firefighters.

“It’s something we grew up with,” Kirsch said. “We learned that volunteering – that was something good to do, and it was a way to give back. We grew up with that mentality.”

James Kirsch (Photo: Samantha R. Kirsch/Special to NorthJersey.com)

Kirsch’s father, Robert G. Kirsch, was supervisor of the borough police department’s records bureau and its photographer until his death in 1985. All of his five siblings have firefighting, first aid or law enforcement experience, and he said nine of his nephews and nieces serve with the fire department or volunteer ambulance corps.

One of them, Christopher Naylis, was sworn in as fire chief on New Year’s Day.

Firefighting is the “family business,” said Naylis, 30, an operations manager for Technical Fire Services Inc., a local company owned by his father, ex-fire chief Gerard Naylis.

“One of the big challenges the fire department’s going to face is losing someone with that kind of experience and institutional knowledge,” the fire chief said of his uncle.

Kirsch said he looks forward to spending time with his family. He and his wife, Jill, met when they served together as volunteer firefighters. The Englewood couple has two children: Adam, 25, and Samantha, 21.

Kirsch, who has a master’s degree in public administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University, said he may pursue collegiate teaching opportunities in fire science. He is expected to be succeeded by Robert Byrnes Jr., 43, when the Borough Council meets on Tuesday.

Byrnes’ father, Robert Byrnes, retired as a paid firefighter the same year Kirsch was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

In passing the torch to Byrnes, the retiring captain said, “It kind of shows how long I’ve been here because I worked with his father and, then, I worked with him. It’s a good thing, but it just shows how long I’ve been here.”

Email: devencentis@northjersey.com

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