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Westfield Fire Chief Walter Ridge Retires
After 38 Years of Service Upon Reaching State Mandatory Retirement Age

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 Verniero.

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 General’s Office during the past five years.

During that "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 pension.

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 of Union.

Mr. Bagger and Mr. Augustine had placed a retirement date of January 1, 1999, according to Mr. Augustine’s Chief Legislative Aide Nancy Malool.

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 May.

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 be found.

Unlike some towns, where personnel may have built up as much 200 sick and vacation days, the Westfield Firemen’s 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 12 years.

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 bus’s 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 won’t turn 65 for several years.

Copyright 1997
TheWestfield Leader.
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