Fire Chief Walter Ridge Retires
After 38 Years of Service Upon Reaching State Mandatory
By Paul J. Peyton
Specially Written for The Westfield Leader
Spending the past 38 years with
the Westfield Fire Department, with the last 16 as Fire
Chief, has been extremely rewarding for Walter Ridge. He
officially retired on July 1 after reaching the mandatory
retirement age just reinstated by the state.
Deputy Chief Paul Battiloro,
Jr. is temporarily replacing Mr. Ridge as Acting Chief of
the department, which includes a paid department of 37,
including an additional deputy chief, and a volunteer
staff of 19.
Although a recent bill signed
by Governor Christine Todd Whitman give police personnel
who are 65 or older until January 1 to retire, the law
does not include fire personnel. Since Mr. Ridge reached
his 65th birthday last August, his mandatory retirement
was July 1 under the new provisions.
Mr. Ridge said he will miss the
camaraderie of the department but he has no regrets about
stepping down at this time, although he was "hoping
against hope" that he could stay on a while longer.
Prior to the legislation signed
into law by Governor Whitman on June 30, all police
personnel who have reached 65 would have been forced to
retire under an edict by State Attorney General Peter
The legislation allows some 90
fire and police personnel to stay on until January 1 of
next year, thus giving municipalities time to find
replacements. Firefighters who turn 65 after July 2 will
have to retire as of Friday, August 1. The January 1
retirement date also includes police officers who will
turn 65 later this year.
As of next year, all persons in
this line of work will have to retire on the first of the
month following their 65th birthday.
The state law requiring police
and fire personnel to retire by the first of the month
following their birthday was not enforced by the Attorney
Generals Office during the past five years.
"non-enforcement" period of time, persons 35 or
older could be hired and stay on the force long enough to
get 25 years in on the job, thus collecting a full
However, last September the
federal government reinstated guidelines which forbid the
hiring of fire and police personnel who are over 35. The
restrictions also include a mandatory retirement age of
65. The Federal Age and Employee Discrimination Act,
which disallows age discrimination by employers, excludes
police and fire employees.
Mr. Verniero, in response to
the federal mandates released in February, reinstated the
state law and assigned the Division of Pensions to
determine the date for retirement for those persons who
have already reached the age of 65. The Division decided
on July 1 for this date.
The law signed by the Governor
gives communities an extra six months to find
replacements for retiring police personnel.
As for those police personnel
seeking to get 25 years in on the job, the new law, which
was sponsored by local Assemblymen Alan M. Augustine and
Richard H. Bagger, was changed in the State Senate to
give these persons until January 1, 1998, to retire. The
Senate version was sponsored by Senator C. Louis Bassano
Mr. Bagger and Mr. Augustine
had placed a retirement date of January 1, 1999,
according to Mr. Augustines Chief Legislative Aide
Also impacted by the new law is
Fanwood Police Chief Anthony Parenti who, as a result of
the law, will now have to retire from the force on
January 1 after 40 years on the job. Under the provisions
put back into law by the Attorney General, he would have
been forced to retire on July 1 since he turned 65 in
Mr. Ridge noted that the
original bill giving extensions on retirements, as
prepared by Assemblymen Bagger and Augustine, included
firefighters. He noted that he was planning to retire
this past January but town officials asked him to stay
three extra months so that a suitable replacement could
Unlike some towns, where
personnel may have built up as much 200 sick and vacation
days, the Westfield Firemens Benevolent Association
only allows personnel to build up 30 days. Mr. Ridge
noted that he has been fairly compensated for days
accumulated over those years.
The retired fire chief, who
supports the cutoff age of 65, said he worked for 11
mayors and between 30 and 35 council members. He repeated
several times during a telephone interview with The
Westfield Leader yesterday, July 2,
that he appreciates how well he was treated over the
years by both the town government and the department.
Mr. Ridge, who has lived in
town for over 50 years, joined the department in 1959. He
was promoted to Lieutenant in 1963, Captain later that
year, Deputy Chief in 1973 and Chief in 1981.
He took over as Chief from
Norman Ruerup who had served in the position the previous
Among the vivid memories he
recalls during his firefighting years are a tanker
explosion on Mountain Avenue in 1976. The blaze spread to
five area homes, including roofs and aluminum siding.
Another fire in the 1960s
involved the former Clark Estate, currently the side of
an apartment complex on Cowperthwaite Place across from
Roosevelt Intermediate School. The fire started during
renovations to the home. The structure was destroyed.
Another fire on Cacciola Place destroyed four houses
which were about to be torn down to make room for a
residential housing development.
Although no Westfield
firefighters were killed in the line of duty, a
firefighter and a deputy chief were seriously injured
when a school buss gas tank exploded and engulfed
both men in flames. The Deputy Chief retired due to
severe leg burns. The other fireman returned to work but
retired a short time later.
Mr. Ridge noted that Westfield
Police Chief Anthony Scutti is not included under the
state provisions in that he wont turn 65 for