Kevin Riordan: Camden firefighter facing the end of his career on Tuesday

At his Haddon Township home, Camden firefighter Bob Eckert (right) with his father, Robert W., and son Bobby. Bob Eckert is scheduled to lose his job Tuesday morning as part of city layoffs, along with about 60 other Camden firefighters.
At his Haddon Township home, Camden firefighter Bob Eckert (right) with his father, Robert W., and son Bobby. Bob Eckert is scheduled to lose his job Tuesday morning as part of city layoffs, along with about 60 other Camden firefighters.
Posted: January 18, 2011

Camden firefighter Bob Eckert isn't just losing a job; he's losing a career, a calling, and a childhood dream.

"I always wanted to be a part of the Camden Fire Department," says the 27-year-old Haddon Township resident, one of about 60 city firefighters scheduled for layoff Tuesday.

Eckert has had the job for fewer than five years.

"I love it," he says. "It's my life."

Such blue-collar devotion seems almost quaint in a state where spending cuts are the new gospel and layoffs are practically a sacrament - particularly when administered to public employees.

We keep hearing that only after many, many members of this unionized (gasp!) horde are forced into unemployment will prosperity be restored to the rest of us.

One flaw in this magical scenario: The lives of real people are being crunched along with the numbers. People such as Bob Eckert, his wife, Laura, and their 18-month-old son, Bobby.

"From Day One, Christie bad-mouthed us public employees," Eckert says. "He paints us like we're the enemy. Like we're millionaires.

"I don't want to be a millionaire. All I want to do is work my job as a fireman and retire with pride and in one piece, and call it a career."

Speaking of millionaires, Gov. Christie succeeded in protecting them from the unspeakable horror of a tax increase last year. But his "sharing the sacrifice" budget slashed aid for cities including Camden, forcing it to cut services. Hence, several hundred layoffs are to take effect Tuesday.

"Christie is making it very difficult for people all over the state," Eckert says. "I don't get it. I'm a New Jersey resident, I'm a taxpayer, and he's saying he's saving tax money? My taxes just went up. My parents' taxes just went up."

Eckert grew up in Collingswood, where his dad served as fire chief. The younger Eckert can't remember when he wasn't fascinated by firefighting in general and the Camden Fire Department in particular.

"It has such a tradition," says Eckert, who at 19 moved to the city to meet its residency requirement for fire applicants.

He bought a house in Fairview with his lifelong best friend Andy Staszewski, who died of bone cancer in 2006, before they had a chance to fight fires together. "There's a memorial to him at Holy Trinity Church in Collingswood, where we met when we were kids," says Eckert.

He loves the city - "it's just so cool" - and says he has always been treated with respect by the residents. The job has turned out better than he even imagined.

"The camaraderie is number one. It's like you have two families, your family at home and your family at the firehouse," says Eckert, who spent three years at Engine 9 in East Camden and is assigned to Engine 1 downtown.

"There's nothing like being on the nozzle at a house fire," he continues. "You're crawling into a room that's on fire, and you're putting it out."

Layoffs were rumored for more than a year and took off when Christie took office. The actual notice from the state Department of Personnel came by mail Dec. 10.

It was terse, to say the least: Eckert's dream job would be over as of the close of business Jan. 18. "Even now it doesn't seem real," he says. "It still hasn't hit me. I guess I'm in denial. I don't know."

He recently took a firefighter application test offered by Charlotte, N.C., but was not particularly enthusiastic.

"I want to work in Camden. I want to retire in Camden. I pray every night that something will happen, and they'll bring us back."

Eckert had hoped to put on his uniform Tuesday morning and report for work, as on any other day. But instead of starting a 24-hour shift at 7 a.m., he and other firefighters on the layoff list are being asked to report at 10.

"I guess they don't want anyone getting hurt on the last day, which is understandable," Eckert says. "So we'll show up in our street clothes and turn in our gear and badges.

"And when they tell me to leave, I'll leave."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|