Atlantic City celebrated 13 new firefighters joining its "public safety family" Friday, while still unsure of how it can pay them — and dozens of others — for the longterm.
The new firefighters, all Atlantic City residents, were hired under a $9.7 million federal grant that reaches its two-year end date in May. With no luck so far on a grant to retain them and the city's finances uncertain, it could mean layoffs not long into their tenure.
But leaders were adamant that they will do whatever they can to keep the new firefighters and the approximately 35 others still being paid by the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant.
"We're researching every avenue we can to make sure the funding continues," said Public Safety Director Willie Glass, who was on a preplanned trip out of state and couldn't attend the graduation.
The first step is to see whether the city can spend the more than $3.5 million that will be left on the SAFER grant once the May anniversary date has hit.
"That question has been asked but not answered," said Deputy Chief Vincent Granese, who is handling the grant for the city and has been in contact with a representative at FEMA.
But even with those remaining funds, the grant would pay the 48 firefighters it covers only until some time in September.
After that — without the extension — "the city either picks up all the SAFER grant positions or they're going to have to lay off," Granese said.
"The future's uncertain right now," Fire Chief Dennis Brooks said. "We're still in fact-finding mode."
He would not talk about layoffs, but there is a chance that could help the city move up on FEMA's priority list.
There are tiers to the grant: Departments that have already laid off personnel are at the highest tier, with those that have sent out layoff notices also getting attention. Atlantic City, which right now is just looking to retain those it hired on the original grant, is at the bottom of the list.
Atlantic City applied for the SAFER grant in 2010 in an effort to reverse massive layoffs in the police and fire departments at that time. The grant pays only those who respond to fires, not administrative personnel.
On Sept. 30, 2010, 30 firefighters were among those laid off. The grant brought 28 of them back May 3, 2011, with the two others not returning for other reasons. That November, 20 more were hired.
With the grant coming to an end and its future uncertain, it raises questions about hiring those who graduated Friday. But, in order to keep the funds it already has been granted, the city had to make those hires to fill in open spots.
"We've been very vigilant with compliance to the rules FEMA has set," Brooks said. "We just dispense the funds, they regulate everything."
That will include another class of about six to fill in for recent retirements.
As those hires are made, the firefighters at the top of the grant list move onto the city budget and are no longer paid under the grant.
But on Friday, Brooks celebrated the new class, which includes his nephew.
"You firefighters were born to be firefighters," he said of the class, then singling out his sister in the audience, recalling when she put her first baby boy in his arms. "Well, today, he's a firefighter."
The academy was accelerated, lasting only eight weeks, which meant about 50 pages of work each night and a lot of pushing, said Battalion Chief Angelo DeMaio, who led the class. They had to be tested on two levels of firefighting, as required by the grant.
New Firefighter Eric Koob spoke on behalf of the class and talked of the three years they waited on the list before the hires were made.
He thanked the family and friends who supported them "while we waited anxiously for our dreams to come true."
Battalion Chief Angelo DeMaio praised the class, which he said consists of mostly lifelong residents, including several who served on the city's Beach Patrol.
"They were phenomenal in the pool," he said. "They can't wait until June."
Used to classes of 25 to 30, DeMaio said having just 13 allowed for more one-on-one instruction.
"They're really ready for the job," he said.
"Welcome into our family," Mayor Lorenzo Langford told the class. "Thank you for taking this giant leap forward, and may heaven forever shine down upon you."
While the new firefighters say they have been told about the grant and its uncertainty, they will just do the job they have dreamed about for a long time.
"If it happens, it happens," said Firefighter Richard DiCioccio, 21, who grew up in Chelsea Heights. "We're just happy to be here."
He got the Fire Department call about two months after the area got hit by Hurricane Sandy.
"Chelsea Heights after the storm, it was horrible," DiCioccio said. "Then the best thing in life, this happened."
The new firefighters are Jason Pendlebury, Timothy Brining, Richard Restaino, Patrick McDevitt, Joseph Welsh III, Derrick Williams, William Nagle, Adrian Wilson Jr., Richard DiCioccio, Eric Koob, Patrick Reynolds, Matthew Doherty and Mauro Sandoval.
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