Fire Watch!
By Lynne Bruger

Sometime during the wee hours of Tuesday, April 19th there was a water main break in front of CUMAC’s building.

Thousands of gallons of water rushed into the streets; fortunately only a little made its way to our basement. Not as fortunately, while the water company was able to stop the gushing and restore most of the water to our building, it was determined that an issue remained in the line that ran to CUMAC’s fire suppression system.  For two weeks, CUMAC was without sprinklers, a mandatory safety protocol in any commercial building.  We quickly learned this meant we were responsible for monitoring our facility 24/7– a process called “fire watch.” 

The logic behind fire watch is that if a building is being constantly monitored by a human being, that person(s) will notice smoke or fire in its infancy and be able to alert the fire department who could arrive early and do the work the sprinkler system lacked the water to do at the time.  Failure to comply with this back-up safety plan would have put CUMAC’s building, and surrounding structures, at risk, and also made CUMAC liable for some hefty fines. Our Executive Director, Pat, immediately met with a few members of CUMAC’s staff and they laid out a schedule to get the agency through the first 48 hours.  There are almost always people in CUMAC’s building from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, so it became a matter of finding people to cover a shift from when we closed until midnight, and then midnight through to the morning.  The idea of hiring a professional service (fire guards are a real thing) to cover these hours was discussed, but staff, recognizing that we were facing a huge unknown cost in the sprinkler repair, stepped up without hesitation. 

Isaiah, CUMAC’s Place of Promise Case Manager whose work often happens at unpredictable times of day, recognized that it was more important for other staff to be in the building during regular working hours, so he offered to take the first overnight. He would go home that afternoon, catch a few hours of sleep, pick-up Place of Promise house manager Ed who volunteered to help as well, and return at midnight.  And so it went. By the time Friday arrived, when our initial plan for coverage had run its course, we discovered it wouldn’t be until the following week that the repairs would even begin.  It was again time to consider hiring an outside firm to take on these extended hours, and again, staff unanimously, and without questions regarding their own compensation, recognized that CUMAC couldn’t afford to divert funds from its critical mission of feeding people, and accordingly volunteered for shifts to cover our fire watch responsibilities.   Pat will tell you she repeatedly heard people say, “We help each other in crisis. This is what we do,” as explanation for the willingness to step in. 

When we realized that weather delays and waiting for parts that had to be ordered meant that fire watch would have to continue into May, and staff – particularly those who had covered many overnight shifts – were growing weary, we again considered hiring out for fire watch. But again, staff decided in order to be the best stewards of the many gifts that make our work possible, this was not where we wanted to see CUMAC spend money. Every watch slot was filled until 8 p.m. on May 5th when the repair work was completed and we finally received the ‘all clear.’  Ultimately, 17 different staff members took on fire watch shifts, including Jenn who had just barely been on staff for one month. Some covered 6 hours, some 18, one (Isaiah) approached 90 – for an average of about a full day each.  Additionally non-staff people made incredible contributions: 2 members of our Pathways to Work program – Ron and Daniel – volunteered for shifts; 2 of our staff members enlisted their significant others to accompany them on their respective shifts as volunteers; and our Place of Promise house manager Ed did over 60 hours, all between midnight and 8 a.m.

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CUMAC did opt to compensate staff for the incredible amount of time contributed in order to keep our building safe, and as much of our resources as possible directed at our programs. We are still working out exactly how to pay some, and many have refused any compensation.  Even if every person had taken their due pay, the additional time would have cost CUMAC over $8,000.  If we had instead hired a professional service to cover our evening and overnight fire watch hours, it could have cost the organization between $25,000 – $37,500. The contributions of our staff and volunteers effectively saved the organization well over $20,000, funds that can remain directed at the vital services we provide.

Of course there were some costs that we couldn’t mitigate with the donation of our time. The repair of the sprinkler line cost CUMAC nearly $19,000, and we do not yet know if there will be other expenses associated with it. 

Fire watch was certainly a first – and hopefully a last – at CUMAC.  It was not an expense that we planned for nor wanted to take on, but we did our best to minimize the effect on CUMAC’s budget and, most importantly, programs.  Due in no small part to the fact that not one wisp of smoke nor flicker of flame was detected on our 500+ hours of fire watch, we also managed to use this extra time productively, and have some fun in the process.  Laura spent one of her fire watch shifts tending to the Howard Sterling Memorial Garden, and learned that Daniel, a participant in CUMAC’s job-training program who had volunteered to accompany her to cover the shift, was also an avid gardener.  In between the hourly walks around every inch of our building, others caught up on work, or used the time to get to a project that always gets side tracked during our busy work weeks. There was some significant cleaning up and cleaning out accomplished.  There was also down time used for binge watching favorite TV programs, grabbing a bite to eat, or just having conversation with and getting to know better one’s fire watch companions.

In the end, while the water main break and subsequent fire watch requirement cost CUMAC a significant sum, it certainly could have been worse. We only had to close a single day – while the water was actively gushing – and did not otherwise miss a step in terms of providing vital services to the community. Time and again our volunteers, donors, and supporters come through for us, and this was an opportunity for us as staff to come through for the organization and those we are here to help. We showed we could not only watch for fire, but also watch out for one another and protect the building that makes it possible for us to provide hunger alleviation, job training, and disaster relief to so many in need. 

Just as our staff joined forces to protect CUMAC’s building and abide by Paterson fire codes we ask you, our CUMAC friends, to journey with us and help us to meet this unexpected obligation which has greatly impacted our budget. As always, we are enormously appreciative of any support you give to help us feed people & change lives.

Going the Extra Mile
By Stephanie Ames

CUMAC is proud to honor two very deserving volunteers, Mattie Taylor and Cynthia Feggins, with the Paterson Alliance’s Extra Mile Award!  This award highlights the achievements and efforts of staff members and/or volunteers within the non-profit sector serving the Paterson community, who have gone above and beyond the call of duty and who exude pride, commitment and passion for their work, the organization and the community we serve.  We feel absolutely blessed to have the help of two volunteers who embody this ethos every day by going above and beyond in service to their community.  Many thanks and much deserved congratulations, Mattie and Cynthia!  

Mattie Taylor                                                                                                                                                                                            Said best by Mattie’s supervisor, “When I see Mattie come, I know the day is going to be a good one.”  Mattie is an absolute lifesaver.  She comes and asks “what do you need” and we’ll tell her, but by the end of the day she’s gotten six other things done too!  She’s always willing to step in wherever needed and get things done to ensure clients in our food pantry get what they need.  She sees problems or needs and steps in right away, without us even realizing half the time, and takes care of it.  Everything goes smoother when she’s in the pantry. Mattie never complains and always brightens up our day.  She’s dedicated, she’s reliable, and if we could sum her up in just one word it would be …AMAZING.  

Cynthia Feggins                                                                                                                                                                                  Cynthia has worked in just about every CUMAC department, but most recently has taken a place in the Community Closet, helping to provide disaster relief and affordable shopping.  Here she is involved in every detail of keeping the shop going and is an instrumental part of the team.  When asked, her manager smiles and says “I can call her anytime I need her and she’s always here.  She’s involved in absolutely everything, we couldn’t do it without her. She’s always going above and beyond and I know I can count on her for anything. I call her my sister.”  Cynthia is kind and patient with people and has a smile on her face at all times.  She’s always in good spirits and our customers and clients just love her.  We couldn’t do so much without her kindness and steadfast dedication.    

The Paterson Alliance works to advance the quality of life in the City of Paterson through the creation of community partnerships and collaborations. CUMAC is a proud member and grateful for the powerful partnerships strong community, and shared commitment to the people of Paterson that it facilitates.